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I had the honor a couple of weeks ago to sit down with Bill Briggs- arguably the father of ski mountaineering in the US. I interviewed him for Powder over a cup of coffee at the Virginian. I must say, what an amazing character. Check out the full interview here.
Start at point A, finish in Kotzebue in the lower left (sorry for the super gheto screen shot). I can’t really get a map that will do this trip justice, so for an interactive map click here.
The problem with adventure travel is that it’s a lot like a drug: it’s expensive, addictive and, if you’re not careful, it’ll take over your life. That said, shortly after finishing our skiing trip through the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, I started cooking up a new scheme (obviously one that had to be bigger and better.) After talking with some friends, we came to the conclusion that follow a snowflake from its starting point high atop a peak, down thousands of meters of rugged terrain, across most of a country, all of the way to the ocean would be quite the experience. Source to Sea, as it’s dubbed. Well, since we just traveled and skied through the largest wilderness area in the lower 48, there was really only one place to head: Alaska.
At the risk of sounding clichéd, Alaska is massive, and just figuring out where to go took months of research. Wanting to plan a similar raft/ski trip, we examined the major ranges of Alaska, finally settling on the Brooks Range. For those unfamiliar with the Brooks Range, it’s remote- even by Alaska standards. The northern most range in Alaska, the Brooks roughly runs along the Artic Circle. With the range narrowed down, it was just a matter of finding a river and zone that would offer decent skiing and a route out to the ocean. Enter the Noatak River. From its headwaters high in Gates of the Arctic National Park, through Noatak National Wildlife Refuge, and almost all of the way to its delta in Kotzebue, the watershed is protected. That’s right, not just the river, but every drop of water that is in the Noatak is protected (either National Park or Refuge)- from when it falls from the sky or emerges from the earth. The Noatak may be the ideal setting for a Source to Sea trip.
We’ll fly into the headwaters by bush-plane in late May while the snow still reaches to river level and pick off peaks as we descend—a 20-30 day journey in all. Paddling and skiing in 24-hour sunlight, we’ll eventually reach the Chuki Sea, well north of Nome, and from there fly back to Anchorage. Our hazards: ice shelves on the river, avalanches, and hungry grizzly just out of hibernation. Our rewards: huge, corned up mountain faces, thousands-strong caribou herds, and total solitude in some of the remotest country in the world. As far as undisturbed adventure goes, there may be no other trip like it in the world.
We’re planning on giving updates from the field, via Satellite, and obviously documenting it in other ways for later release. Safe to say, it should be an epic, so stay tuned.
I love Jackson. Like sex and pizza, even when it’s bad, it’s still good. Case and point was this last week. Although there wasn’t blower pow anywhere in bounds, there’s still lots of stuff to do out the back. This couloir is off the backside somewhere.
On good years, the entrance is manageable without a rappel. This year, one could probably sneak by off-belay, but it may be a little dicey. Eric Seymour, Jess McMilan, Tanner Flanagan and I dropped into this last week. Eric dropped in first and made quick work of the top section and went down to the second belay station. Tanner went next followed by Jess and I. Although it’s been pretty warm this past week in Jackson, it was like a freezer within the walls of the north-facing couloir.
The second belay station was a bit tight- all four of us barely squeezed in there. The second belay is a bit longer and definitely mandatory- probably even on the best of years. About a pitch from the anchor, the descent rolls over a sheer ledge, to an overhang, which makes belaying on skis particularly tricky. From beneath the cave, one can shuffle over to a thin fin that exists skiers right, or go all of the way to the bottom. The fin is pretty narrow, but makes for a more legitimate ski.
By the time we were ready to descend most of the team was freezing. I tried to lighten the mood with some uproarious jokes, however, given our situation I don’t think the jokes were fully appreciated. Once we were set up we made generally quick work of the second belay.
Once safely below I made a b-line for the sun on the other side of the valley before even I lost my sense of humor (I’ve discovered I become quite irritable when I’m cold). Once in the sun shine it felt like full-blown spring again. In my typical fashion I was rocking a pretty serious junk show on the way out Granite- harness on, ATC dangling, rope half in my pack and jacket around my waist. Yeah, I was looking pretty extreme and I’m pretty sure I blew some tourists minds that were also traversing out.
It’s days like this- when everybody everywhere is complaining about how bad it is and how there’s nothing to do- that make me appreciate the fact that I have Jackson and motivated friends that much more.
The Devil’s Bedstead
Unfortunately, I was relieved of much of my camera equipment in Argentina, so I had to scrape together some pictures from the few I had uploaded on other sites. (I am aware there are no pictures of us actually skiing):
I’m already regretting my decision to bivy at the base of the Devil’s Bedstead and I haven’t even fallen asleep. While the freezing temperatures ease my concerns about skiing in the morning, the temps aren’t doing a whole lot for my current sleeping situation. Located in the Pioneer Mountains, the Devil’s Bedstead rises roughly 4,800’ from the valley floor and is defined by a 2,800’ face that looms over the Kane Creek drainage.
The view from the headwaters of Park Creek
Despite the cold temperatures, I manage to sleep until just after 3am. With a rather leisurly start to the day, we begin the bushwhack to the base of the mountain just after five. The route up the Bedstead is pretty straightforward, with the exception of gaining the basin at the bottom of the face. For anyone trying to replicate this here’s the key: go several hundred yards pass the drainage that, on the map, gives access to the basin (there’s a faint trail). At this point start heading up, through steep, yet open forests. Going directly up the drainage is possible, but it’s steep, heavily wooded, and pretty much fubar.
The face of the beast
Scrambling through the loose rock and dirt, we eventually make it to the subtle basin below the daunting face. Any concerns about the snow setting up are immediately dismissed once we reach snowline. The snow froze, and it froze deep, allowing for a long, but essentially straightforward route up the face. As we gain elevation, our crampons and ice axes provide less and less purchase, and I can’t help but think how good an idea not falling is. After a scramble over a windswept scree field, we eventually reach the summit, just as we think the snow is beginning to warm. Relaxing on the summit, we predict that the snow should be turning to corn in the next hour, considering the face has been catching light since six thirty.
Ketchum from the summit
When it comes to skiing (and most other things I suppose) I have the patience of a virgin on prom night, which is probably not the best quality given our current situation. So, after a casual lunch on the summit, I deemed the snow had reached sufficient softness and it was time to drop in. Wrong. The first mid radius turn I ambitiously made was nothing short of terrifying- I thought the teeth were going to chatter out of my jaw. Time to safety ski again…super. Luckily, midway down the face the snow began to soften and we got some of the steep, spring turns we came for.
In retrospect, it’d be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get the entire 4,000’+ descent in good condition. Had we waited for the top to corn up, I think we’d be in real trouble at the bottom- both in terms of snow quality and stability. I think in this case, being impatient wasn’t the worst thing.
Pretty belated, but I was just going through some pics and it reminded me of how cool this line is- despite skiing it in less than all-time conditions.
The Sickle from the Fish Hook drainage
Approximate date: May 26, 2009
There are a lot of epics in the Sawtooths, but for whatever reason the Sickle has always stuck out in my mind a bit. Maybe it’s because you can see it from Stanley, or maybe because it’s such an awesome sliver- either way, it’s a good one for the Idaho hit list.
Drew and I set out one day in late May to see if we couldn’t find some descent snow still remaining in the upper reaches of the ‘tooths.
Referred to as the most aesthetic peak in the Sawtooths, Horstman Peak rises to 10,470’ and is defined by the Sickle Couloir. Usually conquered in two days in the winter, the couloir provides a rather lengthy day in the spring due to the approach. Highlights of the five-mile walk into the basin included me collapsing a snow bridge and falling into a creek up to my waist, countless post-holes in isothermic snow, and Drew loosing his balance and testing his self-arresting skills.
Base of the couloir. Things look good, right?
At the base of the couloir things looked promising: it seemed that the snow in the shade was still frozen and there was what looked like a previous boot pack. Once we got inside the couloir, however, things were not so reassuring. What we perceived to be an old boot pack was nothing more than a debris trails from a large rocks that had rolled down the couloir- this was both frustrating and unnerving. To make matters worse, snow had frozen, but only the top couple of inches. Thus, while you could kick-in with your boot, the moment you transferred weight you’d immediately post-hole.
Half way up the couloir, when things start getting really harry
We pushed on despite the marginal conditions. Midway up the couloir things went from bad to worse. The snow had frozen much deeper and, while it would now support weight, it was virtually impenetrable- even with an ice axe.. Scrambling up the 45 plus-degree top section, the light was just beginning to heat up the snow on the top twenty feet of the couloir- we’d at least have one good turn.
The final steps where we started getting purchase again.
The Sickle Couloir is walled in for about 1,000’, varying between 45 and 55 degrees. Given that sections of it were so frozen they were impermeable with an ice axe, I’ll admit that we were a bit puckered as we dropped in.
The first, and only good turn.
Dropping in, I admit I was pretty puckered. The majority of the couloir was steep, narrow, had few safety zones, and was made up of coral. Needless to say, if you fell, you were going for a ride, probably pin-balling to the apron. We made the call to ski with ice axes in hand for self-arresting reasons.
The first turn, which had been baking in the sun for about an hour, was buttery. The next twenty turns, however, were nothing short of terrifying. The combination of steep, runneled, and boilerplate snow through a walled-in couloir tested our survival skiing skills. We eventually made it to the apron that had been heating up in the sun for quite some time now, and made some more natural turns to the base of the snowfield.
As I said, the Sickle is one of many epics in the Sawtooths, particularly if the conditions are right…or so I hear, as I’ve never come close to hitting it right.
My friend Drew Tabke first raised my awareness of this area. It’s the Eastern Terminus of the Himalaya- essentially the area where Yunnan, Sichuan, and Tibet come together. Since then I’ve wasted, erg, invested countless hours on google earth exploring the area. It’s absolutely fascinating. While the area is gaining popularity amongst climbers, it’s still largely unexplored, particularly by skeirs. The photo above is taken from the Blue Moon Valley in the Sichuan provence. Sichuan is the area that most interests me. Without giving away all my research, that’s kind of been a pain in the ass to come across, I think this area is most intriguing to me for multiple reasons. However, it’s pretty hard to go wrong in any of the aforementioned areas.
These zones contain countless 5,000 and 6,000 meter peaks, few of which have seen crampons, let alone ski tracks. I think only a small portion of these peaks possess viable ski descents, however, I’m almost sure they can be found. My friend Julia and some other TNF peeps’ are currently exploring the Yunnan provence, doing just that. I’d love to put together a ski-focused expedition for the spring or fall of 2010 that further explores this area- which undoubtedly holds countless hidden treasures.