An Alaska Ski Vacation
By Brandi Hammon
Photography by Les Vierra & Corey Skenandore
The Pika Glacier flows into the Kahiltna Glacier under the watchful eye of Denali. In search of a family ski trip to compensate for a less than optimal ski season at home, we chose Little Switzerland on the Pika, the least intimidating initiation to backcountry skiing in Denali National Park. In June, five of us set out to ski the wonders Alaska had to offer.
Alaska is humbling. The mountains are massive, nothing is truly safe and no matter how well planned, the journey is entirely unwritten. Nature can make fire of your agenda, so be flexible because you aren’t in Kansas anymore. It is logistically difficult and planning is paramount so befriend a skiing engineer (or marry one like I did). With that in mind, a trip to Alaska’s Pika Glacier is the perfect starting point to explore America’s last frontier.
The adventure begins with a flight to Anchorage, a rental car with gear crammed to the ceiling and skis jutting through the cab like skewers. This lasts for 3 hours enroute to the jump off point in Talkeetna: an eclectic mountain town steeped in beards, Trump propaganda and beer. Flights from Talkeetna to the glaciers interweave between storms so plan for some extra time in town. Mountaineers mix with hearty natives and the scene is a good balance of ego and humility.
The airstrip is like a parking lot for locals, chock-full of Beavers, Super Cubs and other World War II remnants. A couple in their seventies hopped out of a Cessna with 2 golden retrievers frolicking about on the runway. With five in our group, we piled into 2 shiny planes after the pilots did some rudimentary math to balance gear and people. After takeoff I learned our pilot had missed the runway once and sunk another plane in a lake (is this a good time to mention we took our 15 year old son?) adventure on, right?
Landing on snow in a bush plane isn’t the most comforting experience. The pilot started pumping frenziedly on what looked like an emergency brake to lower the skis. Fortunately it was a clear blue sky so there weren’t any other things to worry about. The plane touched down on glistening white snow into Little Switzerland of the Alaskan Range… safe.
Our small team stepped out of the planes into Alaska’s untamed backcountry. There was already one camp there but we barely noticed. The Pika Glacier was surrounded with peaks and bowls in every direction. After the planes left us with our mountain of gear, the crack of distant avalanches reminded us to take nothing for granted. All of our team had experience in the backcountry except my son. He felt the gravity of the situation when he stated, “I am entirely unqualified to be here.”
Once the campsite was confirmed crevasse free, we hurriedly set up camp, then finally set off to take some turns. This type of skiing, especially when taking your child, needs to be taken with as much caution as possible. Gear included transceiver, probe pole, shovel, prusiks, rope, harness, avalanche airbag, anchors and the knowledge of how to use them. As our son put it, “So, if I forget to secure my avi pack I could die. If I forget to tie into the rope I could die. If I forget to turn on my transceiver I could die. But really, if I forget pretty much anything I could die!”
As it turns out, 16’ of snowfall a month earlier created snow bridges and opened up line after line of untracked corn skiing for the first 2 days. It is risky to ski in Alaska in June. The snow melts and crevasses can open up; it just happened to be a very heavy snowfall year. This area, nicknamed Little Switzerland, is awesome because the skiing is tightly wrapped around the Pika as it runs out to meet up with the Kahiltna Glacier. Kahiltna, on the other hand, can have miles of skinning to ski routes.
The farther north you travel the longer the days are. Alaska feels like a non-stop frat party and your body has a hard time adjusting to 20 hours of daylight. With hours of sunlight on reflective snow it’s hot, especially without cloud cover. Essentially it functions like a parabolic mirror with light rays in every direction. The inside of ears burn, the underside of noses and chins, all the white places that never see the sun get baked. Then there is the cold, at only 5100’ temperatures remained in the 20’s for our entire trip.
Each day we explored different lines, tied off in teams of 2 and 3. There was no shortage of options. Want to run some laps out of camp? Sweet, just move over 20’ rinse and repeat. Want to run up a sketchy north face? Simply boot up it. One member of our tribe was aptly coined “Tomahawk Tom” after falling about 30’ from such an outing. There were ridges to climb, spires with slopes down the other side and big long cruisers begging for turns. Without any chores, work or Internet, the mountains set us all free to be our playful six-year-old selves again.
When the snow was falling and the clouds moved in, it felt like skiing blind. Trying to navigate avalanche debris and crevasses without reference points while maneuvering down became exponentially more difficult. It was a quick return to camp while conditions were bad.
Amidst the peaks such as Dragon’s Spine, Hobbit King, and the South Troll was the stunning Crown Jewel ominously above. Ice peeled off the faces daily, crashing down as a foreboding reminder: we were guests here. Our favorite route took us under the Crown Jewel several times but it stayed put as we climbed over the ridge to ski the open bowl to the north.
Mother nature was kind and delivered 10” of snow over 2 days in the middle of our stay. Perfectly timed as the alpine sun was transforming snow to slush by the end of the second day. We skied corn, slush, and powder in a short 7 days. On the final day we broke down camp and sat on a pile of gear awaiting Sheldon Air. Our excited anticipation was gone as we rummaged for the remaining M&Ms in the trail mix.
Alaska satiated our need for skiing and unleashed a wave of intrigue. As the plane engines flew us away and the snow turned to rivers below, I sensed Denali whispering my name.