This is a tale of two Tails: the Whale’s Tail – which is the ridge between the Ruth Glacier and Tokositna Glacier and features a classic ski trip where one traverses the Tokosha Mountains (Tokosha is a Tanaina word meaning “the place where there are no trees”) with breathtaking views of glaciers beneath your feet, and the Whale’s Bail – where one starts across the Whale’s Tail, but then bails off into the depths of the lower Ruth Glacier which is a not a fun place to be.
Open up Google Earth and zoom in on the Ruth Gorge and you’ll notice a distinct feature to the west of the glacier. Squint – and you’ll see an outline of a whale’s tail. The route that traverses this feature was first skied by NPS Denali Ranger Tucker Chenoweth sometime around 2008. Joe Stock and Cathy Flanagan skied it in 2012 and Joe posted a write up on his site. Since then it’s been skied a few times, mostly by Alaska skiers who have the flexibility to go when conditions are good and the desire to ski out of the range.
The route has four distinct parts:
- From Ruth Gorge ascend 747 Pass (the pass between Mt Bradley and Mt Dickey) to gain Backside Glacier. Descend Backside Glacier all the way to the slopes at the northern boundary of the Tokosha Mountains.
- Gain the high ridge of the Tokosha Mountains / Whale’s Tail and follow the ridge for about 20 miles – dropping east or west when the ridge gets too narrow to traverse.
- Exit the Alaska Range by going up and over Tokosha Gap – the large notch on the east side of the Grand Tokosha.
- From the base of the gap drop down to the flats and ski the groomed snowmachine route out to milepost 131 of the Parks Highway.
In total the route is around 60 miles with about 20K of elevation gain/loss total. You’ll need glacier gear, avalanche gear, camping gear and at least 5 days of food and fuel.
In the right conditions the Whale’s Tail is a fantastic route with world class scenery and skiing. In the wrong conditions you could deal with foul weather, mandatory exposure to high avalanche zones and heavily corniced ridge-lines. These adverse conditions will force you off route and you’ll end up skiing the Whale’s Bail which trades avalanche danger for crevasses and rockfall hazard on the Ruth Glacier.
I skied the Whale’s Tail with Matt Hickey in April 2022 in the middle of a long spell of high pressure where avalanche danger was low and travel conditions were perfect. I skied the Whale’s Bail with Eric Parsons in April 2018 (Eric’s photos are here) where we started in perfect weather and low avalanche danger only to get distracted by climbing while the high pressure lingered. The high pressure ended while we were traversing the ridge and high avalanche danger pushed us down to the Ruth Glacier and the jumbled mess near the terminus.
The above map shows both routes and camps – green being our Whale’s Tail route and red being our Whale’s Bail route. Note that the routes are not actual GPX imports, so do not download them in the hopes of following our exact tracks. In general you’d want to follow the green route – but given how quickly things change in the Alaska Range you will also want to study maps for viable bail options in case conditions are not ideal.
Below are some notes and photos from the two trips. I’ve tried to keep the two trips separate but my mind wanders and often things blur.
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Part I – 747 Pass & Backside Glacier
Get to the Ruth Gorge anyway you can (preferably with TAT), and then get to the top of 747 Pass and descend Backside Glacier. 747 Pass can be an easy skin without a care in the world, wind loaded with high avalanche potential, or the icefall climber’s left of the pass could decide to rain down a wall of seracs. I’ve seen all the of the above. If you get the route right, Backside Glacier can be a mellow ski – if you get the route wrong, you have to weave through a couple of significant icefalls.
2018 (Days 1 & 2)
When Eric Parsons and I pushed our way up 747 Pass we encountered deep faceted snow and difficult trail breaking. It was a cold, difficult, slow and taxing day with heavy packs (8 days of food and fuel plus extra climbing gear).
The lower icefall (about 1000′ below 747 Pass) was easily passed on climber’s right, however the snow next to the upper icefall was windblown and required booting on climber’s left – right next to the icefall (with a belay under the seracs). The top of this steep pitch had a large crevasse so we stayed roped up and belayed even though the wind slab made the avalanche danger obvious from below. Once beyond the crevasse we descended to a more sheltered location where we set up camp and quickly dove into sleeping bags as the temperature plummeted to well below zero.
The next morning Eric and I woke to cold clear skies and set out to try Mt. Dickey. Deep unconsolidated faceted snow and sagging bridges killed our enthusiasm and we gave up early. We also discovered that due to facets every single crevasse we stepped on without skis would fail slowly… and often we didn’t realize we were punching through a crevasse bridge until our entire body was falling in. Thus after gaining only a few hundred feet we returned to camp, packed up and pointed the skis downhill. The glacier looked fairly mellow and we figured it would only take a couple hours to descend 7 miles to the base of the glacier.
But it was not to be. We weaved too far east / skier’s left in one of the icefalls and the crevasses loomed big and deep and the snow across the bridges looked suspect. Skiing carefully with tight ropes we wove slowly through three icefalls until finally exiting and gliding across the smooth flat glacier below. We had spent hours that day convinced one of us was going to take a bad crevasse fall at any moment and we were mentally fried and physically exhausted and so we only skied a short ways until finding a nice spot for the tent and collapsing – sleeping soundly in the deep cold.
2022 (Day 1)
Four years later Matt Hickey and I stepped out of the plane on a perfect day and glided to the top of 747 Pass in less than three hours. We had mild temps, an established skin track, strong well bonded crevasse bridges and low avalanche danger. This time I had packed lighter and opted for only 5 days of food and minimal climbing gear which cut pack weight by almost 10 lbs. We reached the top of the pass, took a short break and then continued down.
When we reached the complicated ice fall we traversed to the far western edge of the glacier where the firn line had retreated and quickly descended several hundred feet with minimal route finding. We were through the icefalls within 4 hours of stepping off the plane and all the way to the base of Backside Glacier and into the meadows at the base of the Whale’s Tail after having only traveled for 5 hours.
Looking back at maps it’s easy to see the route now that I’ve been there twice. There are three icefalls – descend the first on skier’s right, the second one on skier’s left and traverse off the glacier to easily descend the third icefall (note – traversing too far off the glacier puts you on obvious avalanche prone slopes so be wary). After you’re past the third icefall the glacier flattens out and you can easily glide all the way to the toe.
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Part I.V – Digressions
The problem with high pressure and low avalanche danger is that you get pulled into random side quests. A ski traverse sounds like a grand plan until you knock out a third of the route in mere hours and are presented with the possibility of getting home too early with leftover food and fuel – a risk that no one wants to take. And so on both trips we reached the base of Backside Glacier with the realization that we needed to kill time.
2018 (Days 3 & 4) & 2022 (Day 2)
Eric and I camped below West Ridge of Grosvenor (8,450’) – the last peak on the east side of Backside Glacier and we were drawn to the prominent ridge above camp. Grosvenor was first climbed by Gary Bocarde, Charlie Head, John Lee and Jon Thomas in May 1979 via the North Ridge (which was gained after climbing to the Johnson/ Grosvenor col). Eamonn Walsh and Mark Westman made the second ascent via the south face. They traversed the peak and descended Bocarde’s route. Walsh and Westman returned a few days later to make the third ascent of the peak via Once Were Warriors (17 pitches, V Grade 6 ice/mixed). That route was gained after ascending to the Johnson/ Grosvenor col and then climbing up and left until they reached a deep slot that they took to the summit. Walsh and Westman returned a year later to make the third ascent of the Grosvenor via the East Face – The Warrior’s Way (4,400′, V AI4 M5R A0). A fourth route on the east face was climbed by Matt Helliker and Jon Bracey in 2009 (Meltdown, 1,300m, ED3 VI AI/M6+).
With multiple parties focused on the North and East faces it’s surprising that the West Ridge has gone unclimbed. In 2007 Ben Traxler and Mike Bromberg attempted the West Ridge, but turned around at the prominent gendarme just below the summit. The route looked reasonable with our light rack of snow gear and Eric and I were keen to give it a try.
Easy slopes and good skin track put us on the ridge proper within a couple hours and by mid-day we were well above the valley floor and pushing up the ridge. Eventually the ridge narrowed and we dropped our skis and transitioned to booting. A short pitch of mixed snow and rock put us on the upper ridge and we kept going. The ridge steepened and got narrower. A few places we tiptoed gently across exposed cornices threading the needle between overhanging snow on one side steep cliffs on the other.
As we climbed higher the snow began to transition to deep unconsolidated faceted snow. Eric would lead a pitch and leave behind what looked like a decent bootpack and I would break through his steps and sink to my thighs or deeper. Ascending anything steep required sinking up to the waist in suspect snow and tunneling upwards while high stepping in the hopes that the snow would hold.
We kept climbing and the sun arched across the sky and started to dip. Eric lead a pitch of rock and reached a point where we had to decide whether to summit and possibly bivouac on the route – or descend and sleep in our tent. The temp was dropping and it wasn’t hard to make the turnaround call. We turned tail and started down – carefully simul climbing across the corniced ridge until reaching our skis and sliding down the exposed ridge in perfect powder.
That night we slept deep in the comfort of our bags and tent. The temp dipped to -20F and we never worried about our toes. The West Ridge remains unclimbed – if you’re heading down Backside Glacier bring some extra pickets and with a good snowpack the summit could be easily reached.
After that we went powder skiing. Eric and I did laps and Matt and I skied those same runs a few years later. The obvious line that draws your eye is the North Face of 5650’ and both times we ascended the East Ridge and descended the North Face – a beautiful 1500’ north facing slope with consistent powder top to bottom.
And here is where the trip splits ways. Eric and I had obscenely heavy packs and we were looking at many miles of up and down with those heavy packs. Below us was Backside Lake and a landing zone where TAT could easily land. We hemmed and hawed then pulled out the inReach and requested a gear pickup at the lake. Then we skied down and dropped off ropes and our climbing gear – which lightened our packs considerably. A good idea. Or so we thought…
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Part II – The Whale’s Tail
This is the meat of the trip. Gain the ridge and head south. When it gets too steep or narrow, drop east or west depending on what looks best. Going from the slopes above Backside Glacier to the valley below Tokosha Gap is only about 20 miles with 6K of elevation gain / loss – but it is complicated terrain and will probably take longer than anticipated.
2018 (Day 5)
Eric and I left camp at 10am under blue skies and started up valley towards the pass east of 5650′. We had received a text message warning us of impending weather but the weather looked decent and we figured we could make it partway across the ridge before having to dig in. We had been at the base of the pass at 11:15am and the sky was still blue. 30 minutes later when we reached the pass the winds had increased to steady 20+mph and light had gone totally flat.
“You can plan for 5 days,” Charlie Sassera once told me when we were talking about weather. “Anything after that is just luck.” We were on day 5 and things were going downhill fast.
Eric and I briefly discussed going back the way we came, but then opted to drop off the south side of the pass and descend into the valley below and set up camp. As we dropped the weather got worse by the minute. By 12:15pm we were in a complete whiteout and couldn’t see up or down – much less the mountains on either side of us. As the wind and snow picked up we began experiencing shooting cracks on all aspects. We worked our way down knowing that the wind loading and new snow had tipped the balance and caused avalanche danger to shoot up to considerable or worse.
We fought downhill until finding a spot that we thought would be out of the run-out zone for anything that might release on the adjacent peaks. Then we dug in and jumped in the tent as the wind howled and the snow picked up. Sleep didn’t really come that night. Every time I closed my eyes I began to question if we were really out of the avalanche runout zone or if we’d wake to a rushing wall of snow.
2022 (Day 3)
Four years later Matt and I gained the ridge in decent weather, but as we started across clouds rolled in and visibility began to decrease. We could see well enough – so we stuck to the ridge and continued on until we were forced off. This happened several times the first day. We dropped off in both directions in flat light and had wretched ski conditions (breakable crust and slide-for-life hardpack). The worst part was that since we were heading south all the north facing climbs ended up being perfect low density powder – only to transition back to breakable for the descent.
Half way through the first day (just south of Point 5008’) we were forced to descend a steep slope with a partially melted out rock band mid-way through. The exposed rock and adjacent wet slides hinted that this was a textbook trigger point – but the band of clouds had kept the sun hidden all day and suddenly we were happy for the flat light and cooler temps. Matt managed to keep his skis on for the descent, but I pulled mine and booted down a band of rotten snow over rock to reach easier slopes below. The rotten snow over rock was spooky but a slight wind and clouds had kept temperatures low and we both managed to get down without issues.
Below the band of rotten snow we were able to descend to the valley floor and break trail up a northern aspect ridge to regain the Whale’s Tail proper.
Once back on the ridge we had a few more miles of difficult flat light travel before finally bailing off into a wide valley. Matt dropped first and when he went to make a jump turn he promptly fell and took a short tumble before jumping back up and skiing the rest of the slope in perfect style. I am a great survival skier but lack style – so I sideslipped the entire slope – bumping down 1000′ until reaching the valley floor. We skied a little further and then set up camp at a col in-between two small peaks.
2018 (Day 6)
Eric and I woke up to blue sky and about 8-12” of powder. Things seemed great so we packed up and made our way to the ridge. As we approached the ridge the snow got deeper and started to change and we started getting whumpfs and shooting cracks on anything over 20 degrees. We wove around and managed to find a decent route that was under 30 degrees but it was still nerve wracking. On the ridge we found over a foot of fresh snow and every other step produced a collapse and shooting cracks in all directions.
We skied on until reaching the steep mandatory drop just south of Point 5008′. The entire bowl below us was scoured by naturals so we hunted around for other options. Eric tried the ridge but it was corniced faceted snow over rocks. I in turn tried a downward traverse that required traveling across loaded snow above cliffs. I pushed on fearing that any minute the slope would rip taking me for a ride over the cliff-band – but we needed to get down and this appeared to be the only way. I kept pushing, every sensory input screaming at me to turn around, until finally accepting I was at a threshold that I couldn’t reasonably cross. I turned around and made my way back to the ridge. Eric was pale with eyes wide and very happy to see me back on the ridgeline in one piece.
At this point we knew we had to get off the ridge and down onto the glacier below. The only option was a long east facing ridge that dropped all the way to the Ruth. We started down – and as we descended we remote triggered avalanches every 200’ for over 2 miles. We kept going looking for a low angle bail off spot to reach the valley floor – and finally found a north facing slope that was just barely 30 degrees. We stared at it knowing it was the only option – fully cognizant that at any minute the descent could turn into a rescue operation. Holding our breaths we dropped in watching each other intently. The snow was deep and heavy and several storm sloughs released beneath us – but we were able to steer around them and glide safely down.
We reached the valley floor mentally exhausted yet giddy that we were off the steeps and finally in a safe zone. We were in a wide flat trough on the far western edge of the Ruth Glacier. On one side were the steep slopes that we had just descended – and on the other was the jumbled glacier – but the trough was wide enough to be out of the avalanche runout area – and it continued as far as we could see so we wouldn’t have to move out onto the glacier. It was a welcomed safety zone where we didn’t have to think about anything but making miles.
We put our heads down and tromped for 5 miles without thinking until finally camping just shy of the Grand Tokosha in a broad basin. It was a fitful night’s sleep as we tossed and turned, stressed about the avalanche danger we had endured all day and the avalanche danger we would have to face when going over Tokosha Gap when we woke.
2022 (Day 4)
Where 2018 had harrowing conditions and mentally taxing travel, 2022 was a long day in perfect weather and low avalanche conditions – and one of the best mountain travel days I’ve ever experienced. We woke to perfectly blue skis without a cloud present and after quick breakfast we packed up camp and started skiing. A short climb and we were on the crest of the ridge with unobstructed 360 views.
Before us lay the Grand Tokosha and our exit, behind us the Denali massif and to our sides the Tokositna and Ruth Glaciers. On my last trip to the Alaska Range I had descended the Ruth that we could see below us – and on Matt’s last Alaska Range trip he had traversed Denali and exited via the Tokositna which we could also see below us. With intimate knowledge of what was on either side of us were were happy to be on the sunny ridge with stable snow.
After a long day of flat light skiing with a couple steep descents, the latter half of the Whale’s Tail seemed easy. The ridges were broad and the descents fairly low angle. A deep freeze the previous night had locked up the breakable crust and the descents were straight forward and easy. By midday a thin layer of corn had formed on top of the crust and the skiing actually became enjoyable!
We skied along the ridge crest for several hours following a set of fresh wolverine tracks for most of the way. In order to get up and over Tokosha Gap we needed to descend off the ridge crest to reach the basin below the gap and we continued across the ridge looking for an exit. After 5 miles we descended an east facing slope to a broad valley that dropped to the Ruth. An easy descent put us in the basin where we had camped in 2018 . It had taken us 5 hours to reach the basin and we stopped for lunch and to fill our water bottles from an open melt pool. Ahead of us lay the final ascent of the traverse.
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Part III – Exiting the Alaska Range
2018 (Day 7)
We woke to blue sky and cold temps. Our tent was perched on a bench with a panoramic view of the Ruth Gorge framing the front door. In the distance we could see the Mooses Tooth and Broken Tooth (as well as the prominent gendarme where we had turned around on Grosvenor). It was a sublime view that we savored while drinking our coffee, eating breakfast, and contemplating the route for the day.
To our south lay Tokosha Gap and the 2500′ climb that would lead to the exit. We stared at the route and discussed our options: Up the steep loaded slope that was definitely avalanche prone – or out onto the glacier briefly until we could veer back to the side and sneak around the eastern flanks of the Tokosha mountains. It was a damned if you do – damned if you don’t decision: On the one hand going over Tokosha Gap would probably mean one – or both – of us could be involved in an avalanche; on the other hand we had left our glacier gear at Backside Lake and venturing out on the glacier – even for a short distance – meant risking a crevasse fall without a safety net.
In the end we opted to head out on the glacier. A short traverse across jumbled blocks would get us to a flat zone that appeared to be crevasse free. Once there we’d have easy travel for roughly a mile followed by another short traverse back to the shoulder where we hoped we could ski along the edge and avoid the mess of seracs at the toe of the glacier. We both knew it was a flawed decision, but the previous day of travel had frazzled us so much that we opted to choose the poison we didn’t know.
We packed up camp and headed out. Eric’s description of the day is succinct:
At first travel was awesome and beautiful. Then shit got real and awful. Light got flat and the glacier cracked up. We started playing the game of Crevasse – Avalanche – Rockfall, weaving a line along the edge of the glacier where it erodes the Tokosha. It was a nerve wracking few hours. Would the Gap have been better? who knows… would we have been better just going down the middle of the glacier with no glacier gear? We identified this as a bail option in planning, but did not put much time into it. It was a lesson learned to put more effort into dialing the bail out options on trips.
My memory of the day is hazy. Working through the initial rock and ice blocks to gain the flat zone of the glacier was an exercise in separating mind from body. My mind was screaming turn back turn around but my body pushed through the motions knowing it was too late. The snow on the lower Ruth was much firmer than we had encountered on the glaciers above – and as we wove through the blocks we began to feel more secure. Eventually we made our way onto the broad flat zone and travel was – well (to quote Eric) – “beautiful”. But then we worked our way back to the edge of the glacier and – well (to quote Eric) – “shit got real”.
What we had hoped would be a trough (similar to what we had traveled down a few miles up-glacier) turned out to be a steep sidehill traverse underneath a wall of insecure car-sized boulders that were actively shedding. Total distance from where we were to where we hoped we would be able to get off the glacier and gain secure tundra benches was a mere 2 miles – but it was going to be a long 2 miles.
We dubbed the game Crevasse – Avalanche – Rockfall. Venture too far to the left and we’d fall into a crevasse; venture too far to the right and we’d trigger an avalanche; travel down the middle and we’d be exposed to rockfall.
But we played the game. Weaving down to the exposed ice and then back up to the suspect slope and sometimes right down the middle. Sometimes we played the odds against each other – hiding behind an ice block to shield ourselves from bouncing rocks, working too high onto the suspect slope to avoid a section of loose rock, skiing as fast as possible when a section of rock broke loose above.
It was a long two miles.
Eventually we made it to a notch that allowed us to get off the glacier and onto the southeast side of the Grand Tokosha. We bashed through a thicket of dense alder and out onto a frozen lake. We were mentally and physically spent but it was easy travel across wind swept slopes until finally reaching a snowmachine trail which we followed to the valley.
We camped that night southeast of Porcupine Bluff right where the snowmachine trail exits the hilly terrain into the frozen swamps. Camp was set up in a daze and we finally slept deep without a care in the world.
2022 (Day 4 continued)
Matt and I were at the base of Tokosha Gap staring up at the complicated slopes that lead to the col. It was 2pm and the slope was completely in the shade and we were unconcerned about avalanche danger. We did see what appeared to be slight crevasse depressions so we dug out the harnesses and laid the ropes across the top of our packs . We had brought 2 30m 6m ropes for glacier travel. Earlier in the trip we had tied those ropes together for crevasse safety but when we skied unroped we each carried a strand for rescue. We were prepared and safe – and conditions were perfect. And my mind and body were in a completely different place than I had been in four years previously. Feeling strong and motivated we set out for our last climb.
Every skier has a list of top runs which he or she keeps in the back of their mind. Days where weather and partners and snow conditions were perfect. This was one of those days. The ascent to Tokosha Gap was unworldly. As we climbed the walls rose steeper and higher above us until we were deep in a cirque with sweeping granite walls on either side. The snow was perfect and the backdrop caused us to frequently linger and stare back at mountains where both of us had spent a lot of time.
We pushed on, weaving a path of least resistance up and up until finally reaching the top and turning around. Standing at the top and looking out at the mountains framed by the dark rock we paused. We didn’t want to leave. The slope we had just skinned up was perfect snow. If we had dropped our packs and skied a lap it would have been one of those perfect days. The distance peaks glistened and memories surged. Turning to the south we looked out at the Mat Valley and the Talkeetna Mountains glistening in the distance. More memories.
I wanted to stay awhile – to camp at the pass – to linger for a night looking out into the wild landscape.
We dropped off the pass. The snow was breakable crust and the skiing was awful but it went and soon we were drifting towards the plateau below. We wove to the western edge that was shady and crusty and literally side-hilled for 3 miles. Then the ridge ended and we were in the valley and on the flats. We hit a snowmachine trail shortly afterwards and skated until 8:30pm. We had traversed 25 miles of stunning terrain in perfect weather and we set up the tent in a meadow under the rising moon and slept deep.
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Part IV – Slog to the Road
2018 (Day 8) & 2022 (Day 5)
This is the end. We woke, packed up camp and skated to the road. Eric and I had run out of fuel and we built a fire to melt swamp water for our last day of travel. It tasted like spruce needles. Matt and I had rock hard crust and I was glad for the days I had put in on the nordic trails. Eric strapped his shovel to his ski pole, channeled his inner Jessie Diggin and skated out on his splitboard like a pro. Both times it only took about 4 hours. Both times we were out of food and sunburnt and happy and kept stopping to gaze at the mountains behind us that glistened. Both times I was satiated and eager to get home – both times I was already yearning to return.
We reached the road. Eric and I hitchhiked back to Talkeetna. We stood on the side of the highway for an hour before a kind lady from Fairbanks pulled her Subaru over and gave us a ride to the Talkeetna junction. At the Talkeetna junction another kind lady saw our ski boots and picked us up right away. We picked up our shuttled gear and keys at TAT and said our goodbyes.
Matt and I had arranged a car shuttle courtesy of Kakiko. Matt left beers in the truck and we sat on the tailgate and gazed towards the mountains while gulping them down.
As we drove home, our minds were already wondering what lay beyond the last hill we crossed.
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Thanks to Eric Parsons and Matt Hickey for joining me on these trips. Also thanks to TAT for the flights, Joe Stock for route beta, Todd Kelsey for weather updates, Kakiko Ramos-Leon for the 2022 car shuttle, the unnamed lady who gave us a ride in 2018 even though her car was already full and she had a young child in the backseat. And of course thanks to my wife for pulling double kid duty whenever I light out for the Territory ahead of the rest.