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adventure & travel

Alaska - Camping with Northern Lights

More Alaska is hardly possible

by Jonas Blum 12/23/2014
Alaska ... Spines, steep slopes, endless glaciers, all covered in a thick layer of powder snow. The holy land of freeriders. The land of heliskiing. The ultimate dream for many powder addicts. Last winter, we tried to turn this dream into reality. Without heliskiing, but with all the other ingredients. An adventure report with diary entries by Lukas, at 21 the youngster in our group of four.

"The Alaskan adventure began on March 15th with my departure from Zurich to Philadelphia. Because it never really got to be winter in Switzerland, I had high expectations of lots of snow and a picture-book winter. We imagined setting up a camp in the Alaskan mountains. Robert, Sandro and Jonas already had experience of skiing in North America, whereas I consider myself a greenhorn. But skiing in Alaska is new territory for all of us."

With a mixture of advance planning and great spontaneity, you will almost certainly get your money's worth in Alaska. It helps to choose a few options in advance where you can camp. You should also have an idea of the desired terrain and the necessary equipment in your bag. Especially in a winter with little snow for Alaska, with sometimes difficult avalanche conditions, flexibility is a big plus. This was demonstrated time and again on the trip. Firstly, things turn out differently, and secondly, than you think.

"There was enough time on the flight to Philadelphia to fantasize about how everything would turn out. The American security regulations were so rigorous that we missed our onward flight, cursing, and had to hold out for a night in Philadelphia. The next day we were able to continue our journey to Anchorage. Like many, we arrived here in the middle of the night. We waited around at the airport until the morning. The important thing now was to find a suitable means of transportation. We quickly realized that a pick-up was too small to transport all our luggage. So we decided on a camper van. Jonas worked really hard and soon found the ideal vehicle."With the right vehicle, there are few limits for freeriders in Alaska. The advantages of mobile accommodation allow you to enjoy the Alaskan adventure to the full. But first you need to equip yourself with the necessary gear. Alaska's capital Anchorage with its countless outdoor stores is ideal for this.

"The last few days were spent shopping. We had already brought a huge amount of gear from home, but there was still a lot missing. We were still missing a "kitchen tent", cooking equipment and lots of other little things. But now I really want to get on my skis!"Anchorage is not just a harbor town, the mountains of Alaska begin on the east side. The constant view of snow-covered mountains speeds up shopping immensely. As soon as you've had enough of shopping, it's best to head towards one of the passes near Anchorage. From there, you can acclimatize to Alaskan conditions.

"First ski tour on Turnagain Pass: despite the spring weather and some heavy snow, it was great to finally make our first turns in Alaska. After this tour, we were full of energy again for further organizing. In the evening we were able to hire the last missing piece of the puzzle in our equipment battle: In Anchorage we got ourselves a satellite phone, which is essential for communication. Now we just have to find out where we want to set up camp... "Haines is one of the places in Alaska that probably every freerider knows. Every year the name appears in snow sports film productions. Ever since Jeremy Jones was at a base camp in Haines a few years ago, camping there has been booming. The bush pilot Drake Olson can hardly keep up with the orders. Drake knows the mountains around Haines inside out and is the first port of call for many people. Haines was also our first port of call. After preparing, we left Anchorage with the aim of going skiing in Haines. But sometimes the goal remains the same.

"Since we weren't particularly pressed for time, we decided to take a detour over Thompson Pass to Valdez. I was glued to the window most of the way, and the scenery I saw along the way was simply stunning. Once we arrived in Valdez, we were mighty hungry, for skiing as well as food. (As is often the case) The place we chose for breakfast was on a pier. Here, with the magnificent view of the North Pacific, we satisfied our hunger. Our thirst for adventure was unbroken. Sandro and I exuberantly decided to take a plunge into the ice-cold water."

Alaska is huge. It is sometimes very difficult to get reliable information about snow conditions. The avalanche service cannot cover such a large area. The best place to go are the local heliski companies, after all, they are out and about in "their" area every day. Valdez is home to heliskiing veteran Dean Cummings and his company H2O-Guides. If you're already there, it's just as well to ask about the conditions in the Chugach Range, even if it's a long way from Haines."Ok, that was quick. We drove to Valdez today and tomorrow we're flying to the mountains. The visit to Dean Cummings led to a long conversation. He said they had perfect snow and weather conditions for us. Dean suggested a spot on the edge of the Woodworth Glacier. "We would certainly like it there", he said. "The area would be ideal for a base camp and for our little film project". They would also have time for a drop-off the next day. That convinced all of us. Now it's time to pack up and make the final preparations."

Of course, you can also start in Alaska without a flight to the mountains and pitch your tent. But for a really remote feeling and absolute peace and quiet, you can hardly avoid an airplane or, in our case, a helicopter. "The people who got out of the helicopter were amazed at how much material we had piled up around us. However, the flight assistant explained that we were not day guests, but were planning to camp on the glacier. Amazement quickly gave way to envy. The helicopter was refueled and loaded with our equipment. There was no turning back now. Finally we were off. Without wasting many words, we marveled at the magnificent nature from the air. Once we arrived at our drop-off point, Dean gave us some final advice and wished us a good time. After the helicopter had taken off, it suddenly became quiet. We started to set up our new home, pitched the sleeping and cooking tents and decided where the toilet was. Apart from the sound of shovels, it remained quiet. "The Chugach Range, which forms the southern end of Alaska, is one of the snowiest regions on earth. From the North Pacific, the storms whip against the mountains and dump up to two meters of snow in just a few days. Last season was below average for Alaska. The view is crazy. While the locals complain about a lack of snow, in the Alps this would be considered an above-average winter (at least). On the bright side, little snowfall means good weather. During our time in Alaska, a record-breaking, three-week high dominated the weather.

"On the first morning, with the sun shining brightly, we decided to explore our surroundings first. We got an overview by hiking up the glacier for five hours. The long, flat ascent was rewarded with a magnificent view. We could see as far as the distant ocean. The area was overwhelming. Back at camp: Oh shock, by now all our food was frozen. Fortunately, our "snow saw" did a good job of sawing up the chicken."

At the end of March, it is still the height of winter in Alaska. Although there are the first days of thaw at sea level, at around 1700 meters, where the base camp was located, winter still has everything under control. During the day in the sun it is quite bearable, but as soon as the light disappears behind the mountains, it gets instantly cold. With good clothing and warm sleeping bags, however, the cold is bearable. When you start to discover all the terrain around you, the cold is quickly forgotten anyway. "On the second day in camp, we immediately tackled the first nearby destinations. Then followed a simple daily rhythm: get up around ten o'clock, lunch, ski until eight o'clock in the evening, dinner, with a bit of luck brush our teeth under the northern lights and sleep. As time went on, we moved further and further away from the camp. The descents slowly became steeper and more challenging. I'm definitely not used to this kind of skiing."

As a "newbee" in Alaska, you are challenged. Most are not used to the steepness of the descents. Runs of this kind are rarely possible in the Alps. Skiing in Alaska is a big learning process. At the beginning it is almost impossible to estimate what is skiable. In the right exposures you can usually assume that the snow will be good, but this presents the alpine freerider with a new, unfamiliar problem - sluff management. The masses of snow that you set in motion are considerable. In order to ski a line smoothly, you have to plan carefully and anticipate the sluff. After a month in Alaska, you can roughly estimate this, but it probably takes years to deal with it safely."Today we were informed via satellite radio that a bad weather front was approaching. We had to weigh up whether we could and wanted to sit out a snowstorm that could last several days. In the end, common sense won out. We are more than satisfied with our first base camp in Alaska. That's why we decided, albeit reluctantly, to fly back after 9 days."

The landscape in Alaska is also impressive in winter. After a few strenuous days of skiing, it's worth exploring the area by motorhome and relaxing your muscles. Be it in Denali National Park, in a remote hot spring or simply enjoying one of the long, colorful sunsets with a beer in the camper. There are always rewarding ski destinations to be seen from the road. Some far away and inaccessible on foot, some very close and many in between where a few hours of bushwhacking through the forest could be worthwhile."From Seward, we saw a high valley that seemed accessible to us. So the next day we set off into the forest to get to the snow higher up. After a few hours we had dragged all our luggage up. This meant we could start a second base camp. Everything was a bit smaller, a bit closer and the snow wasn't quite as good. Nevertheless, it had everything we needed: skiing and cozy days at the campsite with a magnificent view of the fjord. A perfect end to our time in Alaska. What remains are wonderful memories of the wilderness on the glacier, the magnificent descents and the dreamlike nature. It was simply a wonderful time! Alaska, I'll be back!"

The movie about the trip

Alaska - Camping with Northern Lights from Sandro Halter on Vimeo.

Skiing and camping in Alaska

Passes in Southcentral Alaska
You don't have to take an air cab to go skiing in Alaska. One means of transportation to get to the passes in Alaska is enough. From there you can start tours (even multi-day tours) from the road. I can recommend the book "The Alaska Factor" by Joe Stock. It gives a good overview of what is possible with skis in south-central Alaska.

Bush planes are the cheapest way to get to the mountains by air. Flying is ubiquitous in Alaska, we met people who flew to Anchorage in private propeller planes to go out for an evening. Accordingly, there are many offers. The difficulty is probably finding a pilot who is familiar with the mountain region you want to visit and can fly safely in the high mountains.

Another option is snowmobiles. We were told about a "drop-off service" in the Thompson Pass area. The guys unload the freeriders in the desired zone. That should be a lot cheaper than flying. Unfortunately, I can't give you any more detailed information.

Sluff management
Sluff management is really difficult at the beginning. Where you set how much snow in motion is a guessing game at the beginning. The motto is: don't rush things, take things slowly. There are a few basic rules: either you are faster than the sluff, follow it slowly or make sure you don't get in its way. The first is unrealistic for most people, the second is too "boring" and the third can be achieved by choosing a "diagonal" line, for example. But getting this right takes a lot of experience.

Camping

Camping is, in my opinion, the ultimate way to experience skiing in Alaska properly. With good preparation and a well thought out camp, camping is actually quite cozy. Here are some items and tips that in hindsight seem valuable to me, aside from good sleeping bags, tents and clothing.

Down finches (down-lined slippers): There's nothing more pleasant than finally getting out of your ski boots after a long day of skiing. Change into dry socks and into the instantly warm down slippers. Ahh, what a cozy feeling. You can even walk around in the snow in these things.

Lots of sleeping mats: Good, thick mats for sleeping and some thinner ones for sitting and standing on. The snow cools from underneath when standing for long periods of time, despite the down mats.

Snow saw: Extremely helpful for setting up camp. And also for chopping up frozen food if necessary.

Redundancy in the cooking system: One gas and one petrol stove. The decision between a gas or petrol stove is (at this altitude) more a question of faith. Both work, provided you have the right gas mixture. If the weight is right, both are best. There is nothing worse than a non-functioning stove in a base camp. Several cooking stations are also practical so that you can melt the snow on one and cook on the other at the same time.

Satellite phone: You can easily rent a satellite phone in Anchorage. It costs around 150$ for a month with approx. one hour of call credit. In general, only Iridium devices work in Alaska, so it's worth asking the stores for advice.

Solar panels: If you want to film and take photos, you probably won't be able to avoid solar panels. The "starter kits" from GoalZero have more or less proved their worth. When it was really cold, the system was a bit buggy, otherwise quite reliable. Charge throughout the day and tap in the evening.

Time: We were in Alaska from mid-March to mid-April. A good period in my opinion. At this time, you can enjoy long days (sunset between eight and nine o'clock) and good snow until far below. Later on, the conditions are still perfect until well into May, but you have to expect spring snow at lower altitudes

Photo gallery

This article has been automatically translated by DeepL with subsequent editing. If you notice any spelling or grammatical errors or if the translation has lost its meaning, please write an e-mail to the editors.

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