The Walking Shred: an adventure in Alaska’s backcountry

 

My backcountry ski course met way too damn early the Friday before spring break, loading the bus with what seemed to be enough gear to summit K2. Eager to shred some decent snow and gain our level one avalanche certifications, we headed out before sunup to get an early start.

Spending the weekend in a cabin near Summit Lake, we evaluated our options for runs based on weather, reported avalanche conditions, snowpack and how much we’d be able to shred between the summit and the bus. The first day we returned to Tin Can, using the icy but well traveled slopes as a proving ground to hone our travel techniques and practice identifying avalanche conditions.

On advice I now consider to be entirely bogus, I had decided to use “Yupis,” a type of ski shoes with an embedded skin that would presumably allow me to ascend slopes faster than with snowshoes. In theory it’s a nice idea, but in practice they looked like someone who had no knowledge of skiing or snowshoeing tried to blindly meld the two concepts in Satan’s garage. To say that this was a failed effort would be putting it lightly, as the first half of the ascent was filled with falling, cursing and bloody knuckles — eventually culminating in me chucking the Yupis in a tree to recover on the way back down.

At the summit we settled in to recover some desperately needed calories, and we began digging a test pit to evaluate snow conditions. Your pit should be a representative sample of the slope you intend to ski, allowing you to evaluate the different layers of the snowpack, relative strength of the slabs and whether an avalanche would propagate if triggered. After running several compression tests and assessing the snow crystals through a magnified lens we made a solid run to the bus and retired to the cabin for the evening, signing the log book as “The Walking Shred.”

The second day we hiked up Tenderfoot, an ascent that, during a normal winter, would be quite easy. However, this year’s exposed brush and alders made the climb slow and frustrating — which was exacerbated at higher elevations by a loose deep snowpack covered by a thin crust. Remembering the ice from the day before, I had naively decided to forgo snowshoes, opting for simple boot spikes instead. Considering that each step brought me crashing through the crust into waist-deep snow, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that may have been a bad call.

Upon finally reaching the summit, we realized that the avalanche conditions were worse than initially reported. In addition to the southerly slides we had planned to avoid, there was a northern avalanche that hadn’t appeared in any of our reports. Adding to our apprehension, visibility was dropping by the minute as a thick layer of snow and clouds had descended upon the pass. In an effort to avoid dangerous terrain, we descended back down a bit before dropping in to the north slope.

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The run was decent, and our group had the option to split up afterward to try the different terrain the mountain had to offer. With each group accompanied by an instructor, we made our own ways down the slope, stopping to investigate signs of instability. Though we experienced no slides, new or old, the “whumping” we heard (accompanied by some minor shooting cracks) was more than enough to send our adrenaline levels into overdrive. As we reconvened near the bus, we were given the opportunity to practice using the rescue sled, which solidified my growing aversion to ever needing to use one.

On the third day, the instructors had us plan the trip ourselves. Taking into consideration the new snow, early season conditions and overall risk, we opted to run Manitoba, a mountain with a long approach offset by wide, open slopes with low risk of slides. With blue skies as far as the eye could see and new snow from the night before, the approach was beautiful, and everyone dropped down to their base layers to fight the heat coming off the snow.

We dug another test pit, declared it safe and dropped in to the best snow I’ve ever had. Between the summit and ridge the snow was largely untouched, and soft from the blazing sun. Carving through the snow like soft butter ranked somewhere between runner’s high and religious experience for me. I was able to get two runs in despite the three-day fatigue, and I have no qualms about describing hurtling down that untouched snowpack as better than sex. As we each soared through to the regroup point, spraying each other with snow as we skidded to a halt, the expressions on every face told the same euphoric story.

Riding high on the utter exhilaration of the weekend, we made our descent and piled back into the bus, our legs collapsing into the seats as we spent our very last scrap of energy.  Finally able to rest, we spent the return journey exhausted, sore, and psyched for the next excursion to Hatcher’s Pass the following week.