Alaska Expedition 2011
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 with a play on this being called Tea Party in Alaska. The Trip was a great success, and experience for all. Before the expedition I had skied extensively in the 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, which is a snowboard that is cut down the middle and turns in to a pair or skis for walking on when traversing. Split-boarding is relatively new and not a common site especially on a long traverse, as it definetly has its added challenges and considerations compared to skis. Ben was on Telemark skis which is the traditional way of sking by having a free heel (and mind apparently) teli is a dying skill, and definatly old school. While I was on an alpine touring setup, so in touring boots which suck for skiing, as the boots are as soft as butter, and I use Marker Dukes for my binding. Although they are the heviest binding around it is the sacrifice I take for weight, but alowes me to ski hard on them and have the confidence that they wont release in no fall terain. I always think there are 2 types of ski Tourers; traverseres, who mabe downt even ski much more than a blue run but love the adventure and traveling long distances in the mountains, using light weight gear making for an easy traverse but not very good for skiing. The other type are skiiers. People who go out into the backcounty to ski steep fresh lines,sking is the prority over the traverse, so you use heavy gear which is better for ski preformance, but makes for a harder traverse. I definetly fall into the 2nd catagory. 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 in extreamly cold conditions it can be imposible to put alpine boots on as the plastic freezes and even using the cooker to heat up the plastic you still need 2 people to help put them on!
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 seing Karibou, Elk, buffalo, Bears, and stoped off at a fantastic hot springs which is a must if traveling through. I was on the night shifts, relying on lots of coffee and loud music. After passing Hains Junction on the way down to Hains the road became quite bumpy and was the only piece of advice from a friend after telling them about the trip. ”Just watch out for the bump on the road” great advice from a stoner! However he did not say watch out for the pocupines, there were hundereds, and massive. Up to a meter long, covered in spines, all attracted to the road. I swerved round dozens but then one was not so lucky, I violently tuned but after reversing to see if I had got him saw I had completly ran over the back half of a large porcupine, squashing him like a pancake. But to our amazment there was no blood, and he did not even seen in pain but just carried on dragging his back half behind him. I felt awefull and we had to kill it. Not a great start to the trip, and many might see it as a bad omen. The only thing I had was my trusty ice axe, which I never want to do again. Luckily 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, meeting Paul the pilot. We aranged to fly out the next morning, Tom had a tooth ake and ended up having a root canal, so we prepaired all our gear and sleped at Pauls Hanger at the airport. People were so friendly we met some real caracters, 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 rekie the whole route. In doing so we decided to change from our origional route to avoid the Mede-Denver glacer conection, as the glacier was already open and would be difficult to travel through with sleds. The flight was about 40 minutes, and really exillerating. Apon ariving we set up camp, in glorius 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 Ben and my heads as even on the flats there were 3 clear layers in the snow which fractured cleanly with ease. We knew we had to be carful over the next month in less than ideal conditions. Then the others arived and Paul was off again. We saw his red plain dissapear and knew we were on our own until we got our food drop in 16 days.
We then went and skied a neer by peak which was Un named peak 1955, posibly making a first decend down the chute in the middle of the face. It was about 50 degrees steep and a posible first decent, we patriotically named the run ‘Royal Wedding’ after the royal wedding which was taking place at the same time back home in England. I droped in first the snow was bad, as it was late in the day, but got better and better as you went, a great way to start the trip and infact over the border in BC, Canada.
On the 3rd day we went on to ski the south west couloir on Devils paw another posible first decent, with the Devils paw being the highest mountain in the range. After dificulty finding the chute due to white out, it was in great condition for ascending; icy with little boot penetration. There was about 1000m to ascent which took roughly 3 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 avelanche debris which is always discusting to ski and we called the run ‘The Tallon’, which was up to 55 degrees steep.
On day 5 I did the South East couloir on devils paw. Another posible first decent 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 decended from a quater the way up as he had technical issues with his snowbord, and Ben and Alex decided to decend 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 quater.
Later that day we started our 200km traverse and ended up 2 hours later at the base of couloir peak, which we had reasurched 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 dierea all morning which never helps, but we got on with it and only had about a 600m ascent, and 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 spiece turns all the way down, there was a crust layer on the surface, and your skies would get stuck under it which was not ideal in steep terain. 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 decent.
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 had a dud of a battery. So that was it our sat phone was out of action unless our small solar pannel could charge it. But we still had our spot a gps device, but it was worring as potensially worst case sinaro 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 couloir peak we decided we had to start high tailing it towards Mt Poletica which is where we had decided to have the food drop with the pilot, but with all the bad weather we were way behind schedual 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, satphone is broken” then repeated the message. We had somehow managed to rig the sat phone up to the solar pannel with the other guys holding mirros, and a space blanket in place reflecting every bit of light we could and managed to get a 20 second call though. We were extatic! We should be in the clear, 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.
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 hains and paul could take off. At about mid day we saw 2 dots on the herizon. Toms instinct was Bears! He got his camea and zoomed in, zooming in on the picture to see it was 3 ski tourers. It was the team from vancouver traversing the route we had heard were going to be around. So we cleaned up the camp in a hurry, organising things, and I cleaned up various piles of vommit and dioreah from around the camp as had a bad alergic 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 Pauls plane, we were extactic. I ran out into the open holding the flag aloft to indicate the direction of the wind, Paul circled a few times before putting it down. 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 he was off, if was a compleate overdose of stimulation, and after having some wiskey with the team from Vancouver they were off, with their leader forgeting his bowl.
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 though, they 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 presumibly blown in with high winds.
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 clifs/ steep slopes to the right, negociating it being only meters wide in places. The snow was deep in places wading waste deep in places. The chute we inteded to ski was about 50 degrees steep and another possible first decent. The chute was 20 m 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 arout a rock on the face before getting back onto the ridge. The snow was solid rime, and then it changed, I was all faceted and I sunk down to my waste as was neer the rocks, so I went down and right to find better snow, and as I stood there about to start going back up to the ridge I felt and heard Woomf! I set off a size 2 avilanche I managed to scramble over it and arrest myself with my poles. it was a close call. So I dug in and put my skis on sking to line and calling it ‘Suprise’.
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 ariving in Skagway on the 28th day of the trip, making our way through open glaciers and absailing off a 20m cornice.
It was a fantastic trip and a great way to orientate our selves with the conditions in Alaska. The people we met before and after were all extreamly generous, and In luck we arived back to Hains 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 I could not be happier with how the trip went.
Thanks to all in volved; here are some links regarding the trip:
Our facebook page, www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=127641247257345
The Blog for the trip, teapartyinalaska.blogspot.com
The Trip was also endorsed by the BMC
And many thanks to Paul at Flyglacierbay.com