Tincan Peak (North Ridge)

January 2021, Tincan Creek

Temps were in the single digits when we started out, moisture from our breath condensing around glasses and hats and the crunch of the snow startling in the still morning air. We skied in large puffy jackets, heads down, not talking – concentrating on flexing the fingers that took too long to warm. Out away from the parking area and up the well-used skin track until we could cut across the meadows and take the direct route to our destination.

Our packs were heavy: multiple layers, crampons, ice axe, water and food for 12 hours and all the other safety equipment and insecurities we normally pack. Our tentative plan was to ski all the way out Tincan Creek, ski up the glacier at the far eastern end then ascend the North Ridge of Tincan Peak and ski down the other side to Placer River and out to the road.  It would be about 20 miles, but most of that 20 miles was unknown outside of cursory glances at various maps.  I was with a long time backcountry partner, Eric Parsons, who doesn’t seem to ever exhibit fear or uncertainty (even when he’s in situations where fear and uncertainty are prudent to survival) and so the day was deemed casual before we had even seen our objective up close.

Across the lower meadows of Tincan Common.

Below the Library traveling up valley.

Eric looking at the West Face of Tincan Peak. The North Ridge follows the skyline left to right. Summit is the far right point.

Across the meadows and then dropping down and skiing the bench between the South Face of Tincan Proper and Tincan Creek.  And then along the Library looking up at the myriad of ski tracks and slides that spread like wildfire in steep terrain when avalanche danger is deemed low. Up valley past Kickstep and then looking due east at the cliffs of the West Face of Tincan Peak, and the steep rocky and corniced North Ridge. The peak was imposing; the route looked steep and icy and the cornices protecting the summit could be seen from more than a mile away. This was not the Tincan by the road.

Eric, who had prepped for the day by trying to get me to try something longer and steeper and more difficult, stopped briefly and stared at the peak. “Oh…” he muttered. “That puts context into this!” and then he set off again. I stared at the peak in the distance and then began the cold shuffle again.  Wondering what he meant by context.

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1915 Turnagain Pass Place Names. Detail from USGS B 587, Geology and mineral resources of Kenai Peninsula, Alaska.
Plate II, Topographic reconnaissance map of Kenai Peninsula. Source.

January 1897, Tin Can Gulch

In the late 1880s the Kenai Peninsula goldrush began when a prospector named Al King discovered “four pokes of gold” (approximately 8 oz) from Resurrection Creek in Hope Alaska.  He kept his discovery quiet for a couple years until word leaked out and prospectors began trickling into the region.  By 1896 the Kenai goldrush was on with claims staked from Girdwood to Sixmile Creek to Resurrection Creek. 1

In January 1897 two prospectors – W.H Hammer and C.L. Stimhauser – were exploring the areas around Turnagain Pass and staked a claim on Lyon Creek (the creek between Center Ridge and Sunburst). Recording a mining claim required an entry in the local recorders book and the men recorded leaving a “location notice in Tin can fastened to lower stake made of tree.”  After recording they traveled further north and recorded more claims “in a Gulch which shall be known as Tin Can Gulch. Said Gulch being next [above] Lyon Creek at the head of Granite Creek.” 2

Hammer and Stimhauser wanted the gold and sought it, but the claims in Turnagain Pass didn’t produce the motherload. There are no records of Stimhauser’s life past the Tin Can claim and Hammer spent the next decades prospecting the upper Kenai Peninsula until dying of edema. He was buried in the Pioneer Cemetery in Hope Alaska.  Part of the Pioneer Cemetery washed away in a flood and part was demolished for road construction leaving only three markers. 3

Hammer’s marker is not one of them, all that remains is the name is gave us.

1910 map of Kenai mining district. Rare Maps Collection, Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Men pose in front of the Sunrise Motel. 1906. For a brief period Sunrise was Alaska’s largest town. Alaska’s Digital Archives. William R. Norton. Photographs, ca. 1890-1920. ASL-PCA-226.

The Kenai goldrush peaked in the early 1900s and by then all major drainages in the Turnagain area had been explored and named. By 1931 only around 20 men were mining on local creeks and mining slowed even more after that. A working claim on the lower section of Tincan creek was hand placered in the 1930s, but for the most part Turnagain Pass was relatively quiet until highway construction began in the late 40s and was finally completed in 1951.

* * *

Helga (Bading) Byhre. Left: Mt. Spurr basecamp, Sept 1960; Right: somewhere in the Western Chugach, 1960. Photos courtesy of Helga (Bading) Byhre.

April 1960, Tincan Proper

In the late 50s a group of mountaineers and hikers from the Anchorage area formed the Mountaineering Club of Alaska and began leading scheduled trips into the mountains around Anchorage and ski touring outings to the Kenai / Turnagain areas in the winter months.  One of the original founders was Helga Bading – a young driven mountaineer who made numerous first ascents of large glaciated peaks throughout Alaska in the early 60s.

In April 1960, Bading led a trip to Turnagain Pass where she and Anchorage locals Andy Brauchli and Chuck Metzger parked at “Tincan at 8:30 am… and climbed the peak without skis and afterwards skied down in heavy wet snow”.  This is the first recorded instance where the peak north of Tincan Creek is referred to as Tincan and first recorded ascent of point 3900+ (which today is referred to as Tincan Proper).

For Bading the Turngain peaks were mere training.  The April ascent of Tincan Proper was a days jaunt in preparation for an attempt of Denali’s West Buttress.  It was on her Denali trip where she was involved in a high profile accident that involved several simultaneous incidents and was a precedent-setting high altitude air evacuation:

In May 1960 two climbing teams from the US attempted Denali’s West Buttress in May.  The Anchorage team included Helga Bading (31), Andy Brauchli (34) and Chuck Metzger (24) , Rod Wilson (38) and Paul Crews (42) – all strong Alaskan climbers with lengthy resumes of Alaskan peaks.  The other team was from Seattle and included renowned mountaineers Jim Whittaker (31 – who became the first American to summit Everest in 1962) Pete’s twin brother Lou (31), Pete Schoening (33 – best remembered for his heroic belay during the 1953 American K2 expedition, where he single-handedly averted the loss of the entire expedition) and John Day (51). These two teams converged at 14,200’ camp around the same time and moved up to the 16,400’ camp (top of the headwall) on the same day.   The next morning both teams made plans to go to the summit, however Bading was suffering from high altitude sickness and remained in camp.

Both the Anchorage and Seattle teams summited, however on the descent Jim Whittaker slipped and pulled his rope-mates off balance and all four took a 400’ fall.  Jim Whittaker and Pete Schoening, were knocked unconscious, John Day suffered a broken leg, but Lou Whittaker suffered only minor bruises.

The Seattle team was able to contact the Anchorage team to facilitate a rescue of Day and Schoening, who was disoriented due to a head injury. The Seattle team injuries revealed a broken leg, frostbitten digits, head injury with concussion, and possible fractured ribs, however Helga Bading’s acute mountain sickness took a turn for the worse and dehydration, fatigue, delirium, and coma quickly followed.  It was quickly realized that no one in the Seattle party was in as unstable condition as Bading and she quickly become the rescue priority 4.

The next morning a plane managed to airdrop a toboggan and half of the Anchorage team belayed Bading down the headwall back to 14 camp where Don Sheldon made a high altitude landing.  Bading was loaded into the plane and she was flown back to Anchorage.  While Bading was being evacuated, the other half of the Anchorage team and Lou Whittaker escorted Pete Schoening, Jim Whittaker (both of whom were exhibiting signs of trauma) and John Day back to camp.  In a horrific turn to what was already a major incident, a small aircraft flew over the recue at the 17,000’ elevation and lost maneuverability.  It crashed into the mountain and immediately caught fire. Two men were killed in the crash.

Later that day a helicopter was able to land at 17,000’ and evacuate Day.  Two days later the helicopter rescued Schoening and the Anchorage climbers then escorted the Whittaker twins back to 14 camp where another member was flown out by Sheldon.  The rest of the team then descended the route. 5

Safely back in Anchorage Bading made a complete recovery.  A few months after the 1960 accident she was back to climbing hard again and made the first ascent of Mount Iliamna (10,016 feet) in June and Mount Spurr (11,070 feet) in September. In the following years she continued to climb hard and made the first ascents of Mount Gilbert (9646 feet) in 1962 and  Mount Gerdine (10,765 feet) in 1964. In 1967 she made a winter ascent of Mt. Ranier. Closer to home she made numerous first ascents of local peaks including Bashful, Peril and Raggedtop.

Helga Byhre (formerly Bading) continued to climb for decades.  She is now in her 80s and resides in Shoreline, Washington.  If you email her she’ll respond within hours with a string of memories and photos from a well lived life in the mountains.

Illustration from Paul Crews’ “Accident on Mount McKinley” – A Commentary. Wilderness & Environmental Medicine (WEM) journal.

On the summit of Mt Spurr, Sept 1960.

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On the North Ridge of Tincan Peak. Photo by Eric Parsons.

January 2021, North Ridge, Tincan Peak

Moving up the valley we studied the North Ridge of Tincan while skinning at a brisk pace.  We passed a couple parties pushing up into the Library – that network of chutes and spines that is east of Tincan Proper and west of Kickstep Glacier. There are names for each and every chute and spine in the Library, but skiers don’t like to write stuff down and names change and morph with each passing generation.

Take Tincan:  Hammer recorded the creek name in 1897 and by 1960 climbers and skiers were calling the peak north of the creek Tincan. However the official Tincan Peak is the peak all the way at the far end of Center Ridge – at the headwaters of Tincan Creek. This peak was first climbed by Vin Hoeman on March 3, 1962. Incidentally Helga Bading was on the trip when Hoeman made the first ascent of Tincan. She skied to the col and looked across at the Spencer Glacier and beyond where “thousands of peaks shown in the soft late afternoon light”. She waited at the col for Hoeman to summit and they together skied back down to a camp near Center Ridge in the early evening hours.  The next day Bading, Hoeman and John Dillman made the first ascent of Kickstep Mountain via the Southwest Ridge with a descent of the Southeast Ridge.  Several years later Hoeman submitted the names Tincan Peak and Kickstep Mountain to the Geographic Board of Names and the names were approved in 1968. 6

Skiers nearing the Southeast Ridge of Kickstep.

Eric and I reached the Tincan Glacier / Placer col in mid-morning where we looked across at Spencer Glacier and beyond at the thousands of peaks shown in the soft January light. Above us the North Ridge glistened in coat of rime ice.  It was 5 degrees and the wind blowing a steady 10mph and gusting to 25. We shouldered skis, dug out ice axes and strapped on crampons. I donned googles, mittens and a puffy jacket while Eric took off kicking steps up the rime crusted ridge.

Eric at the base of the North Ridge.

Eric leading through the rime ice a few hundred feet above the col.

The climbing was cold, miserable and kind of scary. The rime ice kept breaking apart and I had to scramble up short steps of rock with crampons and ice axe digging into rock.  

On the North Ridge. Photo by Eric Parsons.

Above the rime ice and starting the cornice traverse. Photo by Eric Parsons.

Maybe on a warm March day, like the day Vin Hoeman soloed to the summit, the route would be a walk in the park. Maybe Vin was just a bad ass. After-all he traversed Denali and Mt. Hunter from Wonder Lake to Peters Creek in 1963. He pioneered a new route up Mt. Logan and traversed down the other side, was the first to climb all 50 state highpoints and made hundreds of first ascents throughout North America. Hoeman died in a massive avalanche on Dhaulagiri in 1969 that also claimed the lives of six other teammates.  A survivor from the expedition described the avalanche as “annihilation”.

Traversing the corniced ridge to the summit of Tincan. Photo by Eric Parsons.

We scratched our way up the North Ridge.  Most of the time the route stayed to the east of the ridge, but occasionally it traversed out across ledges that overhung the steep northwest face.  I tried not to look down and slammed by pick into the aerated rime in the hopes of a solid purchase.  But the angle eased off soon enough and then we plodded across the ridgeline towards the true summit.

Looking north at our tracks across the summit ridge.

The final obstacle was a giant cornice overhanging the west face that looked as if it overhung 40’.  We tiptoed across exposed rock to the side of the cornice and avoided stepping on the snow.  I tried not to look down and imagine what would happen if the entire thing peeled off into the abyss below with me on it. It is best not to think of those things.

Eric nearing the mondo summit cornice.

Eric just below the summit. Isthmus in the background.

Summit selfie.

And then the summit.  The wind miraculously died down and we lingered on the top gazing in all directions at familiar peaks. Carpathian towered to the east, Bench to the south and Pastoral to the west.

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“Scary Moderate” on Sunburst. March 2020.

January 1978, Tincan Taylor Pass

Bading and Hoeman’s explorations ushered in a wave of Turnagain climbers and skiers who began to frequent the peaks and valleys on a regular basis. Many peaks saw their first recorded ascents in the late 60s and by the early 70s many of those same peaks saw routine ascents. Despite a handful of accepted USGS placenames there was still confusion in the community over the peaks.  For example, a scheduled outing lead by Charles Kibler in the January 1978 Scree that read “Jan 21, Sat TINCAN PEAK 4764’, 3 miles SE of highway near Turnagain Pass. Gain 3800’ in 4 miles up Taylor Cr to summit.”  (Note – Peak 4764’ is actually Pastoral Peak.)  Kibler’s outing went ahead as planned and the group met in Turnagain Pass and toured up “a ridge along Taylor Creek Canyon” towards Taylor Pass.

It was somewhere in this vicinity that an avalanche was triggered and four people became the first avalanche victims in Turnagain Pass: Around 11am on Saturday Jan 21, 1978, five skiers (Charles Kibler, Ellen DuFresne, Paul Pollack, Alan Worland and Charles Head) were touring up valley when the avalanche occurred. Kibler, DuFresne, Pollack and Worland were fully buried, but Charles Head was carried across the valley and partially up the other side and was only partially buried.  Head managed to extricate himself but the force of the avalanche ripped his pack off his back and skis off his feet.  He spent an hour unsuccessfully looking for the other four members of his party before making the trek back to the highway without the benefit of skis or warm clothing. 7  The paper erroneously published the accident location as Tincan Mountain.

Kibler was a former member of the Alaska Rescue Group and the bodies of the accident victims were recovered later that spring as part of a training event for the Alaska Rescue Group. 8  In a twist of bad luck Head was involved in another accident a year later. Head was belaying a climber on the ice route Ripple in Eklutna Canyon when his partner took a 40’ lead fall and was knocked unconscious.  With the help of Chugach State Park rangers who happened to be nearby, Head lowered and stabilized his partner before a helicopter rescue was organized. 9  Head’s partner was in the hospital for four days with a serious concussion.  His life was undoubtably saved by Head’s calmness during the initial rescue.

Article published in the Anchorage Times, January 26, 1978. Click to for full sized PDF.

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Eric dropping down the Southeast Ridge towards Placer River.

January 2021, Southeast Ridge, Tincan Peak

42 years later we sit at the summit of Tincan look down valley towards Turnagain Pass.  I think of Kibler and friends at Taylor Pass and am reminded that not that much has changed.  A skier in 2008 was fully buried at almost the exact spot of Kibler’s accident. He triggered an avalanche on the South Face of Sunburst and, like Head, was carried partially up the other side of the valley. Searchers found him buried under 3-4 feet of snow and by sheer luck he survived unscathed. The crown from that slide was over 12’ deep in places. In 2014 two friends were skiing in the same spot when an avalanche buried one to the point where only a hand was sticking out.  He began to extricate himself with his free hand until his partner was able to descend and assist.  When we get home later we will read about skiers we passed earlier in the day who will trigger an avalanche on the slopes we skied under.

Eric and I sat on the summit a little longer and then began our descent. Our plan was to descend the Southeast Ridge towards the col that divides Placer River and Center Creek.  On paper that route looked straight forward for a mile, but then we needed to make our way through a cliff band to reach the col.

We clicked into our skis and setoff.  Stiff wind-board turns down the summit ridge lead to an untouched powder bowl.  This was followed by 1500’ of blissful low density powder turns with Spencer Glacier and Placer River glistening 3000’ below. We took our time. It was sunny and the views were amazing while below us it was dark, cold and flat and we were in no hurry to get there.

Eric starting down the ridge.

Beautiful powder 1/3 of the way down.

Skiing down. Photo by Eric Parsons.

Eventually we reached the rollover that dropped down to Center Creek Pass (the Placer / Center Creek col).  It was an obvious notch where the wind funneled east to west and the snow-surface showed obvious signs of scouring and loading.  I skied to the far eastern edge to scout a potential drop but it was blocked by a 50’ cliff band.  We then backtracked a few hundred feet west until finally finding a slope directly above the notch where we could see the entire drop and spot each other.

Working down towards the Placer / Center Creek col. Photo by Eric Parsons.

I dropped in and made a few turns, but the snow quickly transitioned from consistent powder to obvious windslab.  I turned and worked my way into a pocket of trees looking for softer snow and lower angles.  I was skiing across an obvious slab – but I could see soft snow just beyond where I was.

And then the spiderweb of cracks as the slope splintered under my skis and began to slide with me on top…

* * *

Left: Todd Frankiewicz on the first winter ascent of the King Trench Route on Mt. Logan, March 1986. Photo courtesy of Willy Hersman. Right: Frankiewicz with Howie Powder on an uphill downhill race in Hatcher. Winter 1986. Photo courtesy of Tom Murphy.

December 1988, Todd’s Run, Tincan

Eddie Gendzwill remembered.

The 80s saw a steady stream of skiers exploring the peaks throughout the Turnagain area.  Known peaks were repeatedly skied and new areas were explored; names began to take shape. Girdwood skier and architect Eddie Gendzwill often skied the mountain north of Tincan and it came to be known as Eddies Secret Mountain. Anchorage locals Rich Kornbrath and Janice Biskis skied a mountain south of Tincan that people began to call KornBiskisEddies Secret Mountain was eventually shortened to EddiesKornBiskis eventually became Cornbiscuit.

The point north of Tincan Creek was by now commonly accepted as Tincan, and easy access and consistent good snow caused it to gain in popularity with each passing year. Named ski routes like Common Bowl, Hippy Bowl, The Gnarlies, SnakePit and Cornice F***ing Run (CFR) were established and frequently skied. The mountain, while not crowded by today’s standards, saw people on a regular basis and people sometimes felt the need to push a little further away from others, especially in the search for untracked snow. All which set the stage for Todd Frankiewicz’s accident.

The story of Todd Frankiewicz is well known amongst Turnagain skiers and the greater professional avalanche community. Jill Fredston wrote a lengthy description of the accident and aftermath in her 2005 book Snowstruck – In the Grip of Avalanches. Mary Ann Potts, former editor of National Geographic Adventure, wrote a post for National Geographic, the accident details are well documented on the Turnagain avalanche center website and local skiers refer to the run where Todd died as “Todd’s run”.

Frankiewicz was a well-known local mountain athlete.  He was an accomplished telemark skier and had won multiple local races at Alyeska and in Hatcher Pass.  In March 1987 he was on the team along with Willy Hersman, Vern Tejas and John Bauman that made the first winter ascent of Mount Logan via the Trench Route. In February / March 1988 Frankiewicz, Leo Americus and John Bauman completed a winter traverse of Marcus Baker. They skied up the Matanuska Glacier, summited and then skied down the Knik to Palmer. On summit day Leo Americus froze one toe quite badly, yet still completed the traverse.

On December 6th, 1988 Todd Frankiewicz, Regan Brudie and Jerry Steurer were skiing Tincan after a storm had blanketed the peak with a coat of powder.  They made several runs on the lower mountain and then pushed higher in the hopes of skiing the North Bowl for their final run.

The approach to Todd’s Run. December 2018.

Sliding in. December 2010.

Down the run. December 2010.

The North Bowl lures you in. Everyone skis Common Bowl and if there’s no sign of instability people keep pushing higher.  A short skin across the ridge, a short section of booting and then you’re above a beautiful 1000’ run.  The top few turns are right around 40 degrees but the angle quickly eases off for 800’ of perfect 35 degree turns down the gut.  The only problem is the top is always wind loaded and in order to slide into the gut you have to ski under the wall of snow clinging above you. And since the top is always wind loaded, the snow is always punchy and you can’t get a feel for stability until you’ve skied over the wind lip and into the run. Once you’re in the actual gut of the run the angle is consistent , the run tends to hold snow and skiing tends to be great – but the whole time you’re looking over your shoulder at the wall of snow above and to your right and thinking what if.

Todd led the way into the bowl that now bears his name, careful to stay high on the slope, not much more than twenty feet below the lip of the ridge.  It was a short-enough distance that he must have been confident that any avalanche he provoked would break below him.  It only took a seconds to execute his traverse and – nothing happened. He shouted an invitation to his partners, and Regan dropped in next.

Just as Regan skied within arm’s reach of Todd, the snow began to break around them. The fracture line propelled itself with so much energy that it show over the lip of the slope and would have pulled Jerry off the flat ridge if he hadn’t jumped back with the quick agility of a cat. Regan remembers hearing Todd say, “Oh fuck,” and watching transfixed as the fracture line unzipped the mountain. And then he was bumping along at a great speed on his back, his legs caught up on a large block of slab that was slow to disintegrate. Regan was spit out of the avalanche just above a nasty “meat grinder” of a rock chute. He managed to state, unhurt. Todd was not as lucky  The avalanche threw him a half mile down the mountain.

– Jill Fredston, Snowstruck: In the Grip of Avalanches

Todd died from trauma while being flushed down the route.   His partners performed CPR at the scene but he was unresponsive.  He was to engaged to be married and his partners had to make the difficult call to his fiancé. His death shook the community.

The North Bowl became known as Todd’s Run.  It’s a beautiful powder slope on the right day. But even on the right day you’re always looking over your shoulder.  Everyone knows where Todd ended up and you ski past it holding your breath and keep holding your breath until your partner joins you safely and you ski the rest of the run wondering whether your assessment was correct, or if you got away with something.

* * *

Eric on the final drop to Placer River.

January 2021, Southeast Ridge, Tincan Peak

Descending the choke.
Photo by Eric Parsons.

The slide is inconsequential. It is shallow and doesn’t propagate far and I am able to easily ski to the side. Looking over my should I note that it is only 20’ wide and a few inches deep.  Eric laughs and I tell him he can go first. He declines so I keep pushing my way down.  I ski the other direction and kick off another small slide and then turn back only to knock off another.  Finally I point my skis and drop fast into the soft snow that is on the windward side and then ski downhill without looking back.I reach the notch safely and position myself so I can spot Eric.  He descends without issues and we begin breaking trail across the flat bench towards the final 2000’ drop to the river. A few hundred feet of deep snow and then we’re on the edge of the final pitch and looking down.

The top turns are wonderful open glades in the soft evening light.  But then the light gets flat and we start skiing blindly towards the trees.  We reach the trees and then put together short pitches trending right towards the only opening we can see.  On paper the lines directly below us are really close together so we stick to what we can see and keep heading down.

The trees pinch together into a tight drop.  Eric skis into the drop tentatively and then starts lowering himself down on alders as the angle steepens.  He’s on a waterfall but there is ample snow for him to keep his skis on.  Or at least there was.  By the time he’s down the soft snow is scraped off and I’m forced to take off my skis and monkey-bar the trees with my feet skittering on blue ice. I once fell into a creek while skiing and have PTSD every time I’m near water and I yell at Eric to make sure I get down safely before he skis away.  He obliges and smirks as I scramble over to him hyperventilating.

Dropping down the upper glades to the choke.

Eric below the choke.

Looking back up at the improbable line.

Then we’re out of the steep notch and back into open glades again.  A handful of turns and a short rock step and we’re down. We look up and note that our route was the only route off the bench that doesn’t end in cliffs.  We congratulate ourselves on our superb route-finding without acknowledging it was pure luck.  But our rejoicing is short-lived; we’re on the flats and past the dangers – but it’s cold and getting dark and we have 10 miles to go.

We put our heads down and begin the long cold ski back to the car.

Eric the Viking, Mid 90s. Photos courtesy of Mark Norquist.

January 1998, Tincan Trees

Viking around 2005.

Tincan on a dark December day where it is snowing an inch an hour of low density champaign powder. I was a new skier, but I was tagging along with locals who were happy to show me the goods.  In front of everyone leading the charge was a loud man with distinct bushy eyebrows and a voice that boomed above everything else.  His name was Eric but everyone called him “Viking” and he plowed through the thigh deep snow like a zealot in search of something just beyond.

Dropping off the ridge at treeline the snow rose to mid-thigh and then parted effortlessly. A turn caused the snow to billow but it never fractured or sluffed more than a few feet. Despite being deep, the turns were effortless and we easily glided through trees and over rolls. Halfway down the Viking broke off from everyone and dropped into a steep section where I watched him fly over a 15’ rock and disappear into the pillows below.  We all followed, throwing ourselves like lemmings unable to control the impulse.

We reached the bottom and skied back up for another run. Viking lead the way, his contagious enthusiasm spreading to all those around. The day moved on and the snow kept falling and we kept skiing and somehow my memories of that day morphed. I remember the perfect turns and the snow as it sparkled and rippled away from me like water and I remember the booming laugh as Viking pitched himself over drop after drop – but those memories are just snapshots from a reel that spans years and years where the days, mountains and people blend.

It was Hammer and Stimhauser that named TinCan, and it was Helga (Bading) Byhre and Vin Hoeman who put the names on the maps – but it was Viking who intimately knew and shared his knowledge and love of the area with the greater ski community. He collected and told stories of skiers in the local mountains, but as the years passed he became the primary subject. Stories of huge descents, intentional (and unintentional) triggers, near misses and a continuous streak of luck followed him as he racked up hundreds upon hundreds of backcountry ski days for over 40 years. He skied all the lines on Tincan Proper at one time or another and was known to push his way down in inclement weather when stability was questionable. When avalanche conditions were particularly foul he would just lap the skin-track – preferring to be out breaking trail through deep snow to skiing the safety of the resort. I recall one particular afternoon where my wife and I were skiing up Tincan in deep snow only to be passed by Viking skiing down next to the skin track. My wife immediately stopped and pulled her skins. When I asked what she was doing she said, “If Viking is skiing down the skin track then we’re going home.”

Pro-skier Greg Hill quizzing Viking for beta while Poacher looks on.

Over the years I got to know Viking both on and off the slopes. He became a familiar face that I saw everywhere from distant ski peaks, to local bars and stores to summer fishing spots. In the greater ski community he developed a reputation that was larger than life – locals and visitors alike routinely sought his knowledge of the area – and many of the stories he told began to be retold in various forms throughout the years. There was the time Viking was skiing with a dog that was gored by a goat somewhere near Tincan, the time he stuck his ski pole in what he thought was a bear den and heard a growl, and the time his ski partner fell in a fumarole while skiing a distant volcano.

The stories elevated his mythic status, and in recalling those stories I often blur the lines between fact and fiction, but in person his larger than life personality was quickly replaced with a very real, thoughtful, and kind individual.

He once flagged me to a stop in the middle of a busy intersection just to ask how my ski season had been. Running into him in the parking lot after a long day of skiing meant you had to stop and take the cold beer he offered you. Once while skiing he noticed my particularly haggard look and dug into his pockets to pass me a handful of chocolate liqueurs. Bumping into him in the hardware store meant my 5 minute errand to buy a box of nails turned into a 30 minute discussion about skiing and people and mountains – and I would eventually pry myself away and drive home, my mindset in such a state where I questioned if skiing and people and mountains could ever exist independently.

Eric the Viking died in September 2020 in a tragic boating accident. He was everywhere… but then one day he wasn’t – and in the winter that followed Turnagain Pass felt empty. Eric wore a lot of hats from carpenter to life-partner to grandfather– but for most skiers he was the person we came to with questions about our mountains knowing that he’d have a story and that if you asked, wherever you were he would happily stop and tell those stories.

In remembering a particular conversation with Viking, local skier Jeremy Woods eloquently recalled, “Eric’s history lessons revealed that while we’re all just interlocuters here, some of us have a deeper appreciation for places, names, and the history of the others that came before. Perhaps the part I like best about Alaska’s particular ski culture is these places at once feel wild but almost always carry stories if you know who to ask. Eric was who to ask and carried that part of the culture for us.”

* * *

Placer River.

January 2021, Placer River

It is cold and getting colder. Below 0 and our skis have zero glide.  At one point we have to remove skis and tiptoe through open water. The binding fittings on our boots ice over instantly and we have to chip away at our boots to clip back in.  The miles go by slowly and I’m hungry and tired.

Looking over my left shoulder I study the peaks as we ski along.  It takes forever to get past Tincan.  It seems like we’ve skied for hours and miles and yet the ridge we’ve traversed is still above our heads.  Soon it gets dark and I can no longer clearly see the peaks we’re skiing past.  The stars glisten above our heads and the ice crystals flicker when my headlamp passes over them.  My mind wonders.

This valley is full of ghosts. We ski by Center Creek where Yancy Flair died in March 2009 – the day Redoubt erupted. I was skiing Wolverine trees in Turnagain Pass that day and ran into Viking. We are near Grandview where Jim Bowles and Alan Gage died in an avalanche in February 2010. A good friend and climbing partner of mine was on the probe line when they found the bodies. In the distance we can barely make out Carpathian in the evening light.  I climbed Carpathian years ago and wrote about Jeff Moeller who fell to his death on the peak in August 1977. Recently I received a random email from the woman he was dating. “Today would have been the 71st birthday of my friend Jeff Moeller, who was one of the three climbers who fell on Mt Carpathian around July 31 1977,” she wrote. 45 years ago she wondered why she didn’t from him all summer and didn’t learn about his death until months afterward. I know old climbers that still mourn the passing of Vin Hoeman and skiers who think about Todd Frankiewicz daily. I have a friend who almost broke in two when Viking died.

The night and cold surrounds us as we travel for miles without words – the only sound the hard crunch of our skis against the snow. Finally we see the lights of the highway and realize we’re at the end of our long day. I start the truck and the ghosts of my mind finally begin to fade as the heater warms and I begin to feel my toes again.


Acknowledgments

Thanks to those who provided me notes and pictures for this post. Specifically Gerrit Verbeek and his site Choss Lore, Helga (Bading) Byhre for notes and photographs, Willy Hersman and Leo Americus for helping me find photos of Todd Frankiewicz and Mark Norquist for the mid-90s Viking photos. Also thanks to Eric Parsons who is always happy to join me on something that may or may not work out.


Notes

  1. Bureau of Land Management in Alaska. Gold Panning Guide to Recreational Gold Panning on the Kenai Peninsula, Chugach National Forest, Alaska. 1997.  []
  2. Verbeek, Gerrit. “Tincan Creek” Choss Lore, An atlas of geographic naming history in Southcentral Alaska. Accessed Feb 20, 2021. http://chosslore.com/articles/ F_LRS_27609_Tincan_Creek.php []
  3. USGW Archives, “Kenai Peninsula Borough AK Archives Cemetery”, USGenWeb Archives Special Projects. Accessed Feb 20, 2021. http://files.usgwarchives.net/ ak/kenai/cemeteries/pioneer-hope.txt[]
  4. George W. Rodway, CRNP, MSN. “Paul Crews’ Accident on Mount McKinley -A Commentary”  Wilderness & Environmental Medicine. Accessed Feb 20, 2021.  https://www.wemjournal.org/ article/S1080-6032(03)70519-5/fulltext []
  5. American Alpine Journal, “Alaska Mount McKinley”, Accessed Feb 20, 2021. http://publications.americanalpineclub.org/ articles/13196104400 []
  6. Alaska State Geographic Board 30th Meeting April 4, 1968,  Accessed Feb 20, 2021 https://www.akmountain.com/ wp-content/uploads/2021/02/tincanname.pdf []
  7. CNFAIC, “Alaska Avalanche Accidents – Taylor Pass”. Accessed Feb 20, 2021. https://www.cnfaic.org/accidents/taylor-pass/ []
  8. Alaska Daily News, “Key dates in Alaska Mountain Rescue Group history“. Accessed Feb 20, 2021. https://www.adn.com/outdoors/article/key-dates-alaska-mountain-rescue-group-history/2010/11/16/ []
  9. Accidents in North American Mountaineering, “Fall on Ice, Placed no Protection, Chugach State Park”, Accessed Feb 20, 2021. []