Winter 2018 Ski Highlights

For the final installment of our seven-month trip, Cathy and I skied in Revelstoke, British Columbia. We then headed home to Anchorage in mid-February, just in time for the Alaska ski season to kick in. 

This spring became my best guiding season to date. Three and a half months of smooth back-to-back trips, compounded by running my own show. Nick D'Alessio, Elliot Gaddy and I were finally operating as Alaska Guide Collective after two years of business setup. It's my dream to collaborate with guys like these. Business is good!

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Chris Lowe and Bertie Chilton from the UK. Neck deep at Roger's Pass in British Columbia. Typical conditions for winter 2017/18 when it snowed for months.

Cathy and I will be in Revelstoke for February next winter. Come ski with me at Roger's and Revelstoke!

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Back home in Alaska I'm reminded there is no place like home. Here's Trent Lutek from Boulder, Colorado sampling his first taste of the Alaska backcountry. In years past, the end of this pocket glacier at Turnagain Pass was an ice cliff. Now it's melted down to a low angle ramp. Perhaps one advantage of a heating planet.  

The next day Nick and I took six older guys to Turnagain Pass. We found the best snow in the low elevation tree glades. Similar to my first memories of backcountry skiing in the Wallowa Mountains. Back when we used wood skis and low cross country boots. Doing powder eights on 20-degree slopes with my dad. When each run was the best in my life. As times have changed, and bigger has become better, it's still easy for me to shift gears back to my original love of backcountry skiing. To be in awe of the perfect mountains. Making turns through pristine snow, no matter what the scale.

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Carrabassett Valley Academy students at Glenn Alps. I was lucky enough to spend four days with these young rippers. On this first day we reviewed avalanche rescue and the basics of avalanche avoidance. A teachable moment here when we watched this avalanche release on perhaps the most infamous avalanche slope in Alaska, just near Blueberry Hill. After four days with CVA I joined a group of Montenegrins.

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Skiing by not-so-fair means, but maybe in Valdez it doesn't count. After battling avalanches and wind around Anchorage, Elliot and I, along with six Belgians, ferried over to Valdez. We skied many, many chutes. 

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Stefan Ponnet shreds another Thompson Pass chute. After a major windstorm, these chutes had the best snow in Southcentral Alaska. Serious fun. 

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After the Belgians, Ken and Ben Scissors came to Valdez for our fourth trip together. This was Ben's first run in Valdez: 1,400 vertical feet of classic Thompson Pass Coulie. With return clients, and confidence in a stable snowpack, we jumped right into big terrain. 

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Then Ken, Ben and I took a water taxi to the Shoup Bay Cabin in Prince William Sound. What looks like thick brush, is actually open tree skiing to the alpine. 

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Ben and Ken above Shoup Bay and the Port of Valdez. 

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Alaska Range season! On this first trip, Talkeetna Air Taxi pilot Leighan Falley flew Mike Schmid, Bryan Herold and I to the Kahiltna Glacier for our fifth trip together including three previous Denali Ski Base Camps.  Leighan and I used to teach avalanche classes together. Now we fly together!

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Uh, Leighan, could you park us right there? Bryan Herold soaks in the ski options. 

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After crossing the bergschrund, rather than coiling the rope, I like to drag the rope. So it's off my shoulders and ready for use if we need more security. Perhaps the real reason I drag the rope is a youthful image in my mind of New Zealand alpinist Bill McLeod soloing the South Face of Hicks in the Southern Alps while dragging his rope. 

After a few days of skiing big lines, a signal appeared from the noise: time to step back after finding pockets of instability, seeing debris cone avalanches and triggering one persistent slab. As we stood on the moraine below the persistent avalanche we just triggered, Bryan saw me thinking,

"What? You going to call yourself out man?"

"Hmmm, good idea Bryan." I guess he really knows me. 

That avalanche was a classic case of confirmation bias. I wanted to ski the powder slope and complete the circuit. From a ski pole probe at the top of the slope I found a slab over a foot of facets. I ignored the instability data in favor of the data that confirmed my desire for powder turns. It avalanched. Go figure. I worry that ignoring obvious clues of instability (a confirmation bias) is what could get me. It's either that or a black swan event in the form of a deep persistent avalanche.  

A week later, I resisted the confirmation bias while standing above a chute. For five long minutes I stood above the chute taking it all in. The clients patiently waited at the col for my decision. Two thousand feet of impeccable powder swept out below me. The surrounding rock walls were peppered with massive snow mushrooms. I could see that some mushrooms had broken free and rolled down the debris cone. I noticed the touch of sun on the east-facing wall. The harder than normal freeze. The cold air. And how badly I wanted the line. 

"Sorry guys. This one's not happening."

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Stepping back with Bryan and Mike was reeeeelly nice. 

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Chris Ball surfing in Denali National Park. 

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Seb Ramsay considers the biggest line of his life. This was my third trip with Al Conroy and his buddies, including a Denali Ski Base Camp in 2016, and climbing Mont Blanc last summer. We've nailed each trip. Perhaps because we've been lucky with conditions, but perhaps, also, the mindset of Al's group helped each trip. They're from Scotland and accept that weather controls the mountains. 

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Grinding back to camp at the end of another very long day. 

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Alaska factor on steroids for my third Denali Ski Base Camp of 2018. Cormac Murphy, Ally Charlton, Laura Suslavich and I shoveled 12 feet of snow in a week. We learned the essential storm tools are two Remco shovels from Alaska Industrial Hardware, two Paris Expedition sleds for moving snow, and a snow saw for building walls. We became so efficient at moving snow that we worked on inefficiency.

Believe it or not, each day passed fast and the times were memorable. Simply shoveling and surviving. Back to our roots. Or perhaps the pleasure was being unplugged and slowing down. Time to read, talk, sleep, think and reflect. Maybe even a bit of boredom. Precious commodities these days. I left the mountains with pages of notes to build upon.  

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After shoveling, Cormac and I skied around Anchorage for a few days. Here Cormac boots a chute near Anchorage.

Cormac is a portfolio manager from Denver. This means he knows about economics, and behavioral economics. I'm finding backcountry skiing psychology* is most closely related to behavioral economics, not aviation like I previously thought. Cormac was able to explain many of the mental models in my new favorite blog on Farnam Street

*In avalanche world, it seems like the term psychology is more encompassing than human factors. Why is the avalanche world so stuck on the term human factors?

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Cormac wanted big steep runs, but he also understood the Alaska factor and it's curveballs. He wanted adventure and was okay with a grand failure. That gave me an open slate to go searching for big lines I new little about. This is a huge chute up the Glenn Highway near Palmer. A grand adventure. 

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Flying past Mount Huntington in the Alaska Range with TAT owner and pilot Paul Roderick on my fourth Denali Ski Base Camp of 2018. When my first choices for base camp zones were clouded in, Paul kept flying. My face was pasted to the window as I made waypoints of base camp zones on Gaia for future trips.

Paul and his business Talkeetna Air Taxi are half the reason I keep returning to ski in Denali National Park. Denali does have the best snow and terrain, but also TAT sets my standard for customer service. TAT shows me how it's done. 

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Sarah and Kyle Lucas squeeze between avalanche danger and crevasse danger. A hard freeze that night kept our worries at bay. 

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Kyle testing his X-anchor. After lots of experimenting we ditched the normal ski anchor acronym of THINX in favor of TIX: T-slot anchor, I-beam anchor and X-anchor. The H and N anchors seem a bit far-fetched. 

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Ski mountaineering course in the Western Chugach with locals Trevor Clayton and Tully LaBelle-Hamer. 

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Tully practicing his coulie-skiing skills. 

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July 4 above Crow Pass with Maddog is, by definition, a good time.  

Thanks for a great season everyone! While I love skiing these legendary Alaska runs more than anyone, it's really you all that give me the lasting memories.