Photo Essay: Ski Mountaineering in Alaska
AAC member Chris Marshall, Jake Gaventa, and Patrick Graham dreamed of embarking on a ski-mountaineering expedition to the Neacola Mountains, a sub-range of the Alaska Range. Their goal was to establish first ascents and descents of unclimbed peaks around the “Slingshot Glacier” and the surrounding peaks with objectives that include both technical alpine routes and ski descents. Based on their research, this area has seen little or no previous climbing or skiing traffic.
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The Two Towers, as well as other intimidating, fairly featureless granite buttresses made an impressive backdrop behind the cook tent. The aprons seen to the right provided some of the best snow conditions of the expedition. The crown jewel ski descent was the Two Towers Couloir in center of the photo. The Knight’s Moat couloir can be seen in the distance splitting the two peaks to looker’s right. The team skied this mid-storm with near-zero visibility and fast-running surface sluffs. Photo credit: AAC member Christopher Marshall
By AAC member Chris Marshall
Jake Gaventa, Patrick Graham, and I were successful in planning and executing a 15 day expedition into the Neacola Mountains, in the western Alaska Range in May 2013. This trip was in part made possible through the American Alpine Club Live Your Dream Grant. Since we were living in three separate parts of the country, planning for this trip was done over the phone while looking at topographic maps and satellite imagery from the interweb. This proved to be our first challenge, as none of the range was named, and the satellite imagery was out of focus and computer generated; in the planning stages, we often thought we were looking at the same features on the map, when in fact we were not. We settled on a spot that we named the “Slingshot Glaicier” within reach of steep granite buttresses, ridgelines, and sheltered couloirs.
South Central Alaska was experiencing a colder-than-normal spring, and with a storm chasing on our heels, we planned to fly into base camp on May 15, 2013. We met Doug Brewer from Alaska West Air at the airport in Kenai with enough gear and food for 21 days. As the flight crossed the Cook Inlet and headed into the Neacolas, glaciers appeared below, and we began attempting to correlate them with our map. Noting the remarkable similarity between glaciers in our zone and the difficulty distinguishing them on an Alaskan scale map, we began looking for a suitable base camp location. As air turbulence increased and I noticed the low fuel light indiscreetly blinking at me, I told Doug that the glacier below us would do. After setting up base camp and pulling out the GPS, we realized we weren’t on the Slingshot glacier—so much for the meticulous planning!
To expedition with close friends in a remote and unexplored mountain range tested our mental fortitude and technical skill. Teamwork and trust was the baseline for success, and although we were often humbled by steep featureless granite, loose rock, and near constant avalanching, we believe that this expedition was successful. The bonds that formed over the 15 days we spent in the Neacola Mountains established a brotherhood based in trials and tribulations that will be hard to break. We would like to thank the American Alpine Club Live Your Dream Grant for helping to make this expedition possible.
Patrick Graham and Jake Gaventa heading up the Two Towers Couloir. The 55-degree choke of rotten snow looms above. Photo credit: AAC member Christopher Marshall
Patrick Graham killing it in the Two Towers Couloir and finding some boot-deep powder to boot. Photo credit: AAC member Christopher Marshall
Descending from the first descent of the Two Towers Couloir. On another day, the team attempted to climb the Anvil tower (looker’s left tower) and reached a staggering high point 15 feet off the glacier. Natural avalanching on the approach and rockfall sent the team back for an afternoon of cragging and drinking whiskey, separately of course. Photo credit: AAC member Christopher Marshall
Enduring the coldest temperatures of the expedition, with windchill around -30F, Christopher Marshall and Patrick Graham climbed technical mixed ground through the rock band on the lower right side to gain the center ridge. Fresh storm snow and northerly winds loaded the southwest side, creating complex wind slab conditions. Swapping leads mid-ridge, Chris took the lead and triggered a small slab. He fought to self arrest above the fracture and looked back to see the slab propagate back down the ridge and Pat diving over his two plunged ice tools at the belay. The slab arrested just above him! The team continued upward, mitigating the risk by intentionally setting off slabs in front of them. We were rewarded by a crisp bluebird day in remote Alaska mountains. Photo credit: AAC member Christopher Marshall
Thanks to Tough Girls Tutus for providing fine apparel for technical glacier skiing. Jake Gaventa and Patrick Graham get ready to haul the pig. Photo credit: AAC member Christopher Marshall
As warm temps and non-freezing nights sent avalanches cascading down our objectives, there’s nothing left to do but catch some air over the cook tent. Patrick Graham making it look easy with Knox Peak looming in the background. The team climbed the right skyline in a 23-hour, camp-to-camp push. Photo credit: AAC member Christopher Marshall
Christopher Marshall leads through beautiful granite on the first pitch of Busted Sole. The rock quality quickly deteriorated and the team encountered dangerously loose rock perched on lichen and snow-covered slabs. Progress was akin to cold molasses, but the team established a three pitch climb on Pika Point. Photo credit: Patrick Graham
Christopher Marshall showcases a poor boot resole on top of Pika Point. As he lead through wide cracks and blocky terrain, hindered by much loose rock, the humor of having technical boot failure was lost at the time. Seeing evidence of another creature, a pika, existing in this inhospitable environment, and a cup of tea, the irony of the situation was appreciated. Photo credit: Patrick Graham
Patrick Graham belays Christopher Marshall on the final pitch of Broken English. Climbing rock in ski boots with crampons added to the challenge of variable protection in lichen-filled fractures. Photo credit: AAC member Jake Gaventa
Taking a moment to brew up in the Alaskan twilight on the descent of Rick’s Ridge (FA), Knox Peak. Photo credit: AAC member Chris Marshall
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