A 185-mile ski traverse from Anchorage to Valez.
Wind slammed the peak of our tent like a grizzly. The walls sagged like potbellies from wind-packed snow. Our living space compressed into a three by five-foot sarcophagus. After three days in the tent, I was suffering cabin fever insanity. If the storm kept pounding, we would eventually succumb to thirst and hunger and bail out the Matanuska Glacier to civilization. If we bailed out, I would spend another year wondering why I only made it halfway across the Chugach.
A year earlier Dylan Taylor and I did bail out at the Matanuska Glacier, halfway across our intended traverse of the Chugach. We had insufficient information about the route ahead and our food was running out. Or so I told myself when the rigors of an unsupported trip had beaten our egos flat. What if we had pushed a little harder? I abused myself with doubt for ten months until I recruited the Canadian powerhouse Andrew Wexler—and three caches—for another shot at traversing the Chugach in 2005. In harsh déjà vu, Andrew and I were now storm-stalled at the same horrendous halfway point through the Chugach.
You can think of the Chugach as steep helicopter skiing near Valdez. Or, you can think of the Chugach as infinite unexplored mountains. Rising from sea level to over 13,000 feet, this range sponges moisture from the Gulf of Alaska and extrudes massive glaciers down ice-coated peaks and passes. The Chugach merge into Alaska’s only metropolis, yet no one had skied the longest uninterrupted section—the 175 mile Anchorage to Valdez traverse.
Snagging this grand prize of North American ski mountaineering was almost a given with Andrew. Andrew guides big mountains around the world. On days off, he climbs 5.11 fingertip cracks like stairs. An easygoing personality makes everyone his friend and bulging biceps mean women want to know more. While guiding on Aconcagua in Argentina, I prodded him to attempt the traverse with me. He gave in when I exaggerated the true steepness of 31,000 vertical feet of downhill skiing over 175 miles.
In April 2005, my wife Cathy drove Andrew and I into the dark foothills above Anchorage and we tore off for Valdez like manic dogs on day one of the Iditarod. With empty packs we skied for the first of three caches, twenty-seven mountainous miles away. On firm powder we toured through desolate valleys and over passes criss-crossed with courting ptarmigan tracks. Thirteen hours later, we ripped off our skins at Crow Pass and dug into our cache under a cranking aurora.
Days of splitter weather pushed us deeper into the Chugach: Whiteout Glacier, Lake George, and the Marcus Baker Glacier—where my Minidisc sputtered out. I crevassed the excess weight and resigned myself to Andrew’s hip-hop incantations. Hit the gear. Hit the clutch. Hit the gas and I’m gone. I didn’t miss the headphones. My mind stayed occupied by the glacial horizon and a reappearing image of our bronzed faces drinking pints of Alaskan Amber at the Pipeline Bar in Valdez and celebrating success. But on the eighth night we crossed a 9,000 foot col of bare glacier ice and side-slipped onto the Matanuska Glacier, our halfway point, and a raging storm. Ridgetop winds that began that morning were now stuffing our sunglasses with spindrift. In a blinding ground storm, I followed Andrew down the Matanuska to a rock buttress that slowed the wind and split the avalanches. Where we spent the next five days.
By the third stormbound morning our food sack still bulged. Fully rested, I forced Andrew to let me do all the cooking, and I exposed an eyeball to the blizzard each minute to check for lifting. The image of the Pipeline Bar had been replaced by Cathy’s smile. Each stormbound minute became a wasted minute away from her and more fear of failure.
On the fifth morning the wind reduced to a dull roar. After hours of prodding, Andrew agreed to attempt moving—probably just to shut me up—and we packed up camp. A rope length beyond the lee of the buttress I walked back into the storm. I groped blindly in the blizzard until the Magellan GPS in my hand became a white blur. I belayed Andrew in with a prusik, hoping he’d know how to read a GPS in two-inch visibility.
“It’s pretty bad.” Andrew yelled into my ear.
“No, it’s okay.” I yelled back, blind from inactivity and seeing our return to the buttress as the demise of the whole trip. Without waiting for his reply, I staggered into the 100 mile per hour wall for ten more feet until I fell backward. “Sorry. You’re right.” I yelled back at Andrew, who hadn’t moved. We backtracked to the sheltered rock buttress where I had a solid surface to beat my head.
Infinite blue skies rose above us on our fourteenth morning after leaving Anchorage, and I plowed across the Matanuska Glacier like a Jack Russell terrier on a quadruple-shot frappuccino. The violent winds had deposited drifts tens of feet thick in places and scoured the snow down to neve in others. From the Matanuska we crossed high passes between the Powell, Sylvester, Tarr, Nelchina, and Tazlina Glaciers. Leaving the halfway point far behind, we moved about eight hours a day with me breaking trail until exhaustion and then Andrew leading us miles beyond our intended camp. The image of us clashing pints at the Pipeline appeared again and I bolted after it.
Each morning Andrew loaded my veins with Kaladi Coffee. The coffee-making process had been a pre-trip point of contention.
“Filters and mugs are too heavy.” I said.
“Have you tried this MSR filter? It makes the best bean.” Andrew said.
“It’s the concept though.” I said. “If we take the filter, then we’re taking frivolities. If we make cowboy coffee, then we’re going light and fast.”
“If the filter doesn’t go, I don’t go.” Andrew said. Seventeen days into the Chugach I was a filter addict and learning to take Andrew’s opinion as fact.
On the seventeenth day, fearing that Valdez would vanish if I didn’t go faster, I launched from Brontosaurus Peak and mowed down fifteen miles of wind ruts across the Tazlina Glacier to Cashman Col. Valdez was just over the Col, but I’d milked the dregs of my energy. I stripped naked and sprawled in the sun while Andrew caught up. He kicked steps over Cashman Col and broke isothermal slop down the Valdez Glacier while I schlumped along whimpering. Valdez was only ten miles down glacier when we dropped our packs in the slush and collapsed onto them, feeling like three-quarter inch rebar and unable to move for 30 minutes.
I lay comatose in the tent, sinking into the Thermarest. I watched the clouds floating above, and only moved when Andrew passed in hot Cytomax. The image of the Pipeline Bar was close to reality and my fear of failing was gone. I relaxed deeper into the Thermarest and listened to Andrew sing Impala. Tomorrow afternoon we’d be drinking those pints at the Pipeline.
In April 2005 Andrew Wexler and I skied from Anchorage to Valdez. Over 18 days we covered 185 miles and about 31,000 vertical feet. We had three caches located at Crow Pass hut (skied in), Grasshopper Valley (dropped ten days earlier), and at the Scandinavian Peaks hut (flown into us) on the Matanuska Glacier. Eight days of clear, calm and cold weather got us to the Matanuska Glacier from Anchorage. One hundred plus mile per hour winds and snow pinned us down for six days and then five more days took us to Valdez.
On the first day my wife Cathy dropped us off at the Glenn Alps trailhead in Anchorage and we skied over Ship Lake Pass, down Ship Creek, up the North Fork of Ship Creek to Moraine Pass and Paradise Pass, down to Raven Creek and up to the Crow Pass Hut in 13 hours. From Crow Pass we covered part of the well-traveled Eklutna Traverse route including the Raven Glacier, Eagle Glacier and Whiteout Glacier. We then descended the Whiteout to Lake George (15 miles of skating), across the Knik Glacier to Grasshopper Valley and up the Marcus Baker Glacier to a 9,000 foot pass and the Matanuska Glacier. We took an easy glacial bench (~8,500’) from the west to east fork of the Matanuska Glacier to gain Turtle Flats and the Powell Glaciers. We crossed a series of easy passes between the Powell and Sylvester Glaciers (7,200’), Sylvester and Tarr Glaciers (6,300’), and Tarr and Nelchina Glaciers (6,700’). Once on the Nelchina Glacier, straightforward slogging took us across the Tazlina Glacier, up Cashman Col (6,300’) and down the Valdez Glacier to the Valdez Pipeline Bar.