Sleeping on the runway of the small, remote airport is a fairly epic way to launch a ski touring traverse. So is being dropped off by a small aircraft in a remote place called Hades Highway the next morning. That's how Alex Appelbe, Ben Biswell, Tom Francis and Oli Lyon kicked off their recent ski adventure after driving straight through to Haines, Alaska from Whistler in late April. The four British men, who have long-standing ties to Whistler Blackcomb, were embarking on a trek across the Juneau Icefield with the goal of skiing a few precarious, possible first descents along the way.
"For anybody who ski tours, especially in North America and B.C., you think about going to Alaska at some point," said Whistler-based Biswell, who spearheaded the organization of the trip. "We thought we'd like to go to Alaska but the Juneau Icefield is a great way to do it because it's the most northern point of the Coast Mountains...so we could go do something in Alaska that was a lot bigger in a climate that I know something about so it made sense to go there."
Though ambitious and goal-oriented, the group recognized they would have to remain flexible due to the various obstacles they would likely face -- primarily unpredictable weather and avalanche conditions. Regardless of roadblocks, the experienced skiers were able to finesse their plans accordingly and meet their priorities along the way.
"We had two objectives for the overall trip - one was to traverse the ice fields and the standard traverse would be from Juneau to Skagway but because we had another objective as well, we didn't go right from Juneau," said Appelbe on the phone from Los Angeles, where he works as a aeronautical engineer. "The second objective was to try and ski a few first descents, or what we hoped were unskied lines."
The two lines in particular could be found on the Devil's Paw, a rock formation featuring a number of couloirs.
"They just looked so tempting and all of the research we'd done on it indicated that no one had skied it," continued Appelbe. "It's a slightly difficult thing and I think you have to be slightly apprehensive before saying 'I know for a fact that nobody has skied it,' but we went to many of the local shops, ski stores and the local guide bureau and as far as we can tell no one had skied it."
Skiing the two particular south facing lines proved difficult -- the first involved a 2 a.m. start and required crampons and ice axes. The 45-degree pitch reached 55 degrees in certain areas and offered no flat areas for rest or reprieve.
"It was quite precarious and I admit I was scared at that point, just looking down it was very icy and the sun had just risen and we skied down and it was basically sheet ice the whole way," said Appelbe. "It was fun and technically challenging, but not the amazing Alaskan powder lines you see in the movies."
Of the four weeks it took the group to traverse from their drop off point to Skagway, one was spent skiing and snowboarding (two of the boys were on split snowboards, one was on skis and the other was on telemark skis), another was spent waiting out poor weather conditions and two weeks were spent traversing.
Though pitted with crevasses, the Juneau Icefield can be navigated with relative safety in late spring. The route taken by the group was 180 kilometers by map, but longer when detours and ski excursions were factored in. Though the stress of such a technical and isolated trip can weigh heavily on friendships, Biswell said they came out of it intact.
"I got to know them better in terms of not just getting to know them when you're chatting with friends normally...you learn more about each other's characters - who was a little bit more emotional and who was more practical -- it was kind of funny," said the Whistler Blackcomb ski school instructor. "It was a huge adventure and the best part about it was we had a mix of everything - we had ascents with crampons and ice axes where we were scrambling, and we had some skiing where it was steep and icy, and we had some skiing on powder, and we had travel where it was sunny with beautiful views and we had travel where it was trickier with crevasse hazards and white out conditions - we had a really good mix of everything which made it a lot of fun." n