ALASKAN TEA PARTY
In April 2011, I organised a trip to the Juneau Icefield with Ben Bizwell, Tom Francis and Alex Appelby. Our goal was to traverse the Juneau Icefield which is over 200km long while skiing as much as we could along the way over 30 days. It was an all British Expedition, hence the tea party. The trip was a great success, and and an lifetime experience for us all.
Before the expedition, I had skied extensively in the West Coast range with Ben, but met both Tom and Alex at the airport before starting our drive up to Alaska. This proved to be a great but challenging way to get to start a friendship. Within the group Tom and Alex were on split-boards. Split-boarding was relatively new and not a common sight especially on a long traverse, as it definitely had its added complexities and considerations compared to skis. Ben was on Telemark Skis, the traditional way of skiing with a free heel (and mind apparently). Tele is a dying skill, and definitely old school.
THE SETUP. Meanwhile, I was on an alpine touring setup, so my touring boots, which was soft as butter sucked for skiing. I used Marker Dukes for my binding. Although they are the heaviest binding around, it is the sacrifice I have chosen for weight, as it allows me to ski hard and have the confidence that they won’t release in a no fall terrain. I always think there are 2 types of Ski Tourers. Traverser’s; who maybe don’t even ski much more than a blue run but love the adventure of traveling long distances in the mountains. They use light weight gear, making it an easy traverse but tricky skiing. The other type are skiers. People who go out into the backcountry to ski steep fresh lines, and skiing is the priority over the traverse, so they use heavier gear for better performance. I fall into the 2nd category. Normally I even tour in my world cup race boots, for 1 – 3 day trips, but for a trip like this I was forced to use touring boots as the extremely cold conditions can make it impossible to put alpine boots on. The plastic freezes and even using the cooker to heat it up, you still need 2 people to help put them on!
THE JOURNEY. We started our Trip from Whistler, B.C. where Ben and I had been working for the season. It was about 2500km up to Haines, and we did it in a day and a half of continuous driving. It was a slog but great fun to see Caribou, Elk, Buffalo, Bears, and we even stoped off at a fantastic hot springs which is a must when traveling through. I was on the night shifts, relying on lots of coffee and loud music. After passing Haines Junction, the road became quite bumpy, something a stoner friend had warned us about when told of our trip. He, however did not mention the porcupines. There were hundreds, and they were massive! Up to a meter long, covered in spines, and all attracted to the road. I swerved around dozens but one was not so lucky. Although violently trying to avoid it, I ran over its back half, squashing it like a pancake. To our amazement there was no blood, and it did not even seem to be in pain - it just carried on dragging its back half behind. I felt awful, and we knew we had to kill it. Not a great start to the trip, and many might say a bad omen. The only thing I had was my trusty ice axe. I never want to use it for something like this again. On as bright side, the tires were ok, even though they were covered in spines.
When we got to Haines the weather was perfect and we were in luck when we met Paul the pilot. We arranged to fly out the next morning. Tom had a toothache and ended up having a root canal, so we prepared all our gear and slept at Paul’s Hanger at the airport. People were so friendly, and we met some real characters, from Simon the local cop to ‘One shot, One kill’ Preston Snotgrass!
THE FLIGHT out was on the 28th of April. It was incredible, I had never been in a small bush plane and you could feel and see everything. Ben and I took the first flight and flew north to Skagway to reccy the whole route. In doing so, we decided to change from our original route to avoid the Mede-Denver Glacier Connection, as the glacier was already open and would be difficult to travel through with sleds. The flight was about 40 minutes, and really exhilarating. Upon arriving we set up camp, in glorious weather, while we waited for Tom and Alex as the plane was not big enough to take all of us in one go. Instantly when making the walls, the alarm bells started to go off in our heads as even on the flats there were three clear layers in the snow which fractured cleanly with ease. We knew we had to be careful over the next month in less than ideal conditions. Then the others arrived and Paul was off again. We saw his red plane disappear and knew we were on our own until we got our food drop in 16 days.
ROYAL WEDDING. We then went and skied a nearby peak which was unnamed peak 1955, possibly making a first descent down the chute in the middle of the face. It was about 50 degrees steep so we patriotically named the run ‘Royal Wedding’ after the royal wedding which was taking place at the same time back in England. I dropped in first and the snow was bad, as it was late in the day, but it got better and better as you went, a great way to start the trip and in fact over the border in BC, Canada.
THE TALLON. On day three, we went on to ski the south west couloir on Devil’s Paw another possible first descent, Devil’s Paw being the highest mountain in the range. After difficulty finding the chute due to white out, it was in great condition for ascending; icy with little boot penetration. There was about 1000m to ascend which took roughly three hours. The guys were very generous in letting me ski first as I broke trail. The skiing was fun but tough going, very icy at the top while getting better half way down. Near the bottom it turned to avalanche debris which is always strenuous to ski and we called the run that was up to 55 degrees steep ‘The Tallon’.
LYON’S GATE. On day 5, I did the South East couloir on Devil’s Paw. Another possible first descent naming the route ‘Lyons Gate’, it ranged between 50-60 degrees steep. This was about a 1200m couloir. The weather was very bad, with high winds and very limited visibility in a white out. Tom descended from a quarter of the way up as he had technical issues with his snowbord, and Ben and Alex decided to descend from half way. I went on to the top of the chute, and skied from the top. It was a brilliant route, with great snow on the top half, but skiing in avalanche debris for the last quarter.
Later that day we started our 200km traverse and ended up 2 hours later at the base of couloir peak, which we had researched previously with google earth and from the flight over could see it had a massive couloir down the middle of it. We waited for a few days with horrible weather, before finally going for it again in white out conditions on day 9. I did not feel great and had bad diarrhoea all morning which wasn’t helpful, but we got on with it and only had about a 600m ascend. We were at the top of the couloir by 6.30am. We then all skied it. The snow was horrible and it was quite steep at 50 odd degrees. You were forced to make jump turns all the way down, and there was a crust layer on the surface, and your skies would get stuck under it, making the steep terrain even more difficult. Even though the quality of the skiing was not great, it was a really fun run and well worth the effort and time waiting for it, being another possible first descent.
DEAD BATTERY. The day before we went to use our sat phone but to our horror could not as the battery had somehow died! We rented our sat phone from a shop in Vancouver and it had a dud of a battery. So our sat phone was out of action unless our small solar panel could charge it. We still had our spot a GPS device, but it was worrying as potentially, as worst case scenario, we might have to bail on the trip and head to Juneau, if we could not get word to the pilot where to drop our food.
So after skiing the couloir peak, we decided we had to start high tailing it towards
Mt Poletica which is where we had originally decided to have the food drop with Paul the pilot. With all the bad weather, we were way behind schedule and had a lot of ground to cover. Later that day, in the heat of the sun, as the weather cleared we managed to get the sat phone working and I called Paul saying “Mt Ogilvie, food drop, Tuesday…Sat phone is broken”, then repeated the message. We had somehow managed to rig the sat phone up to the solar panel with the other guys holding mirrors, and a space blanket in place, reflecting every bit of light we could. We managed to get a 20 second call through and we were ecstatic! We should be in the clear and now all we needed to to was get to Mt Ogilvie. We tried a number of times after to use the phone, but never got anything else out of it.
FOOD DROP. It took 3 long days of skinning to get there, but we did it and set up a large camp and waited for the plane and good weather while on half rations. We woke in high hopes on Wednesday when it was a clear morning, hoping that the weather was as good in Haines and Paul could take off. At about midday we saw 2 dots on the horizon. Tom’s instinct was bears! He got his camera and zoomed in. Zooming in on the picture he saw it was 3 ski tourers. It was the team from Vancouver traversing the route,. We had heard they were going to be around. So we cleaned up the camp in a hurry, organising things, and I cleaned up various piles of vomit and diarrhoea from around the camp as I had a bad allergic reaction to something in the dinner, in -25c conditions. We greeted them with a cup of tea, and shared stories and looked over maps. Then we heard it; the hum of Paul’s plane. We were jubilant. I ran out into the open holding, the flag aloft to indicate the direction of the wind. Paul circled a few times before landing. I skied out to the plane. It was fantastic to see him, he was in a rush with weather closing in, and going to Fairweather after. But he told us “We got him!”. Apparently Osama Bin Ladin had been killed, and dumped in the ocean, and more importantly filled us in on the royal wedding. And with that he was off. It was a complete overdose of stimulation, and after having some whiskey with the team from Vancouver they were off, with their leader forgetting his bowl.
SNOWED IN. We were then snowed in for 2 days, with over 2 foot of snow falling, which we spent playing cards and eating as usual. We were treated to a whole flock of birds which bombarded us, sitting on anything they could find. It was incredible at 2000m in the middle of the icefield. We also saw lots of butterflies on the traverse, mostly dead presumably blown in with high winds.
AVALANCHE. After digging the camp out of all the fresh snow we decided to ski the south face of another unnamed peak. We ascended up the easy glacier, and on to the ridge. The ridge was great fun, very exposed with cliff and large cornice on the left and cliffs and steep slopes to the right. Negotiating it being only meters wide in places. The snow was waist wading deep at times. The chute we intended to ski was about 50 degrees steep and another possible first descend. The chute was 20m below the summit, and I wanted to press on to the summit. The ridge was not passable so I had to drop down and go around a rock on the face before getting back onto the ridge. The snow was solid rime, and then it changed. It was all faceted, and I sunk down to my waist near the rocks. I went down and right to find better snow, and as I stood there, about to start going back up to the ridge I heard a Woomf! I set off a size 2 avalanche. I managed to scramble over it and arrest myself with my poles. It was a close call. I dug in, and put my skis on skiing to line and calling it ‘Surprise’.
We then skied a bit more in the area before getting underway with the traverse. Our sleds were full and the conditions were good. Finally being blessed with a week of sun, the only good weather all trip. We then went on to navigate through the range arriving in Skagway on the 28th day of the trip, making our way through open glaciers and abseiling off a 20m cornice.
It was a fantastic trip and a great way to orientate ourselves with the conditions in Alaska. The people we met along the way were extremely generous, and with luck we arrived back in Haines for a 4 day party including the beer festival which is a must! Despite the weather we managed to do all of our objectives, and we could not be happier with how the trip went.
This trip was also endorsed by the BMC and made the American Alpine Journal.
Many thanks to Paul at Flyglacierbay.com
Juneau Icefield, Alaska
Length of time: 28 days