Splitboard Trip – A week in AK –

Alaska, an outdoorsman’s paradise. If I were to call any place a second home, it would have to be AK. Growing up I always had the dream of taking that pilgrimage up North, to the great unknown. On one cold dreary April morning, my dreams came true. I had received a job offer working as a raft guide on Six Mile Creek and so with a loaded up Jeep Cherokee and my 120lb malamute, Conan the Barbarian, I was off and on my way for the great drive up North. Colorado to AK; 7 days and 3,300 miles later this is absolutely a drive one would never forget. This was it, I was here. More beautiful than I had ever imagined. Fast forward through four great summer months of rafting and sea kayaking until an unfortunate shoulder injury forced me to go back to Colorado and miss my opportunity for my first snow season in AK. I told myself that would be back. It is a magical place and will always have piece of my heart.

Justin Ibarra - Splitboarding in Alaska

Conan and I on our first drive up North.

Prelude

It was then a year and half in the making but finally in August of 2012; Conan, myself, and now my wonderful girlfriend Tiana all found ourselves on the journey back up North. The destination was Girdwood, in Southcentral Alaska, where I found work at Alyeska and we spent the next 9 months in the valley.

A not so great start off to the winter with warm temperatures and a lot of rain. Short days, no sunlight, and bad weather. Welcome to AK. There is no 300 days of Colorado sunshine here. Living in Alaska throughout the heart of winter is not for everybody. But then when the skies clear and the light comes out it makes it all worth it and you realize why you are there.

I had been in contact with a long time friend of mine, Eric Harvey, throughout the winter and he had the plans to fly out and join me for a week of good times. He was to fly out to Anchorage in the middle of March, which in my opinion is one of the best times to come out. Longer days and sunshine, that’s more like it. He is a strong partner (although he is a telemarker) and so I wanted to plan a fun and longer mission for us to do. A few seasons prior we had both done a long 10 day and almost 150 mile traverse of the Bitterroot Range in Idaho, and so although I knew we would not be doing anything near that big for this trip, I still wanted to find something that would take some effort. Our last big trip being more or less just a huge tour, this time I wanted it to offer more ski options. The two trips that I found that would serve that purpose were the hut to hut tours; Eklutna Traverse and the Bomber Traverse. Although considered a harder trip, the Eklutna seemed to not have as many ski line possibilities as the Bomber Traverse and so I opted for the Bomber.

Justin Ibarra - Splitboarding in Alaska

Conan and I on our first drive up North.

The Bomber Traverse

A week in the Talkeetna Mountain range in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley near Hatcher’s Pass. This trip would include 4 huts, 3 mountain passes, and multiple ski mountaineering lines. Let alone the views that we were going to see. If we were lucky enough we would even be able to see Denali in the distance poking 20,322 ft into the sky. Steep couloirs, open face glaciers, towering peaks and nunataks, beautiful huts, and the northern lights. This was going to be an awesome trip. Months of planning and waiting in the mix. How much food do we need, what gear to bring, buy a map, google earth, reading beta, scoping online photos, reading trip reports. Trips like this take a lot of work even before the trip starts. Even breaking the meal plan down into days and calories takes hours and hours. Some would call it work but I seem to find it to be quite enjoyable. After all, the journey is the reward, and to me the journey starts even once the thought is first conceived.

Justin Ibarra - Splitboarding in Alaska

Anchorage front range skiing.

“This trip would include 4 huts, 3 mountain passes, and multiple ski mountaineering lines. Let alone the views that we were going to see. If we were lucky enough we would even be able to see Denali in the distance poking 20,322 ft into the sky. Steep couloirs, open face glaciers, towering peaks and nunataks, beautiful huts, and the northern lights. This was going to be an awesome trip”

Two weeks prior to Eric’s arrival the skies were bluebird and the snow was stable. Things were shaping up just the way we had wanted. I couldn’t have been more stoked. Finally, a big mission in the place where dreams are made. This is where dreams come true, right? The day then finally came as Eric boarded his plane in Portland, en route to Anchorage. With him, came the storm. A storm that ended up dropping over 3 feet in just a matter of days. Once again, Welcome to Alaska. I’m not going to lie, I was a bit heart-broken inside. Were we going to bail? No, that’s not our style, we have to at least try and go for it. We stayed the night in Anchorage and then early the next morning, in the snow and wind, Tiana drove us both up to the trailhead.

Driving up the road with a fresh foot plus of snow and the winds blowing, I had then started to have my doubts. We were dropped off by some bathrooms at the trailhead where we said our goodbyes and proceeded to gather our stuff together while hunkering down out of the wind and snow. We both looked at each other, smiling; let’s do it. Off we were into the abyss. Our original plan was to head over 3000ft up valley up and over our first pass to the snowbird glacier and snowbird hut. At that point, we just wanted to get up valley as far as we could and once we found a place that we deemed fit, possibly weather down for the night. White-out conditions warranted us to practice our skills on shooting bearings off of each other and after a few hours up valley of constantly assessing our situation, we had finally made the decision to bail. It’s not an easy decision to make after so much work and will to want to push on. Safety has to always be the number one concern. Knowing that the storm was forecasted to last a few more days we turned around. Down inside we both knew that we had made the right decision. By the end of the day we found ourselves back in Anchorage after hitching a ride down from Palmer.

Justin Ibarra - Splitboarding in Alaska

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What Now?

You can’t let things like this discourage you or get you down. With Eric still being here for 5 days, we knew that we could and would make the best of it. It was actually one of many of our deciding factors on turning around. By doing so we knew we would still be able to tour around locally and still get some good day tours in. I mean, it is Alaska, it’s not like there is a shortage of places to tour or anything. And so we played it day by day and still managed to get some great turns in.

The storm lasted a few more days and so the first couple of tours were around locally in the Girdwood Valley. This valley alone is plastered with lines deep off the Seward Hwy. There is also some fairly easily accessible lines as well. The first day we went up towards Crow Pass intending on skiing Jewel Glacier, but the weather once again impeded our decision and forced us to stay lower off of the pass and ski alternate lines. With all the new fallen snow it didn’t really matter too much where we skied because there was soft snow almost everywhere. The next day we decided to tour up Virgin Creek and have a go at skiing Orca towards the mouth of the drainage. Further up valley lies iconic Girdwood lines such as “Big League and Little League” but today was not the day to go for those lines and so Orca was a nice alternative. We ended up finding a very nice path down the Northern aspect of the face and enjoyed pow turns and face shots all the way back to the valley floor. Another great tour. We were now at the tail end of the storm with forecasted nice weather in sight for the rest of the week.

With the storm clearing out we were able to get up a little higher and spent the day touring on the Anchorage front range. Knowing that it still wasn’t the time to charge big lines right after a big storm, we still kept it fairly mellow. The Anchorage front range holds many great lines and peaks where we were able to find great snow around the Peak 3 zone. Breathtaking views looking back towards Anchorage and the Cook Inlet.

“A splitboarder’s paradise. One could easily spend a lifetime in just this area alone of Alaska and it would never get old. We didn’t get on anything too crazy that day because although one can easily access steep and burly lines from many places off the pass, at that point we were just happy to be out riding. You have to leave something to make you want to come back, right?”

Justin Ibarra - Splitboarding in Alaska

Enjoying that AK pow on Orca up Winner Creek in Girdwood.

Another clear day and we decided to tour up Winner Creek and into the snowcat zone for Chugach Powder Guides. I had toured up there on a scoping mission about a month prior with Conan and ended up running into the boss man himself, Jeremy Jones, filming for a Coors Light commercial. That was very unexpected to say the least! Needless to say I was speechless talking to him, but what a great guy. Very humble. While I was up there got a good look at the area and so we skied a few laps in a few different zones and then ended with another great day behind us.

On our last tour together for the trip we decided to head up to Turnagain Pass in hopes of skiing some bigger lines. Turnagain Pass is the place I dream about at night. A splitboarder’s paradise. The entire East side driving up and down the pass is just littered with drainage after drainage of stacked lines over and over. One could easily spend a lifetime in just this area alone of Alaska and it would never get old. Being our last day skiing, we headed up to Tincan for the day and skied our asses off. Laps for days on fresh open faces. We didn’t get on anything too crazy that day because although one can easily access steep and burly lines from many places off the pass, at that point we were just happy to be out riding. You have to leave something to make you want to come back, right?

Justin Ibarra - Splitboarding in Alaska

One of many faces that were drolled over near Turnagain Pass.

In The End

In the end, splitboarding is not all about finding the steepest, gnarliest, most remote lines. It’s about being outside. It’s about losing touch with the common man’s everyday life, with reality. It’s enjoying time with friends. Connecting with the mountains, with nature, with yourself. Yes, I was and still am very bummed that the trip that we had planned and worked so hard for, didn’t happen. What I am happy for is that we still made the best of it and it ended up being one of my favorite weeks in Alaska out of the entire 9 months that I was living there that year. What I am happy for is that I am still here skiing, and I would like there to always be a next time. I want to be that old man, out there touring, still as happy as I am about life today. The goal isn’t ski the mountains, nor to climb the mountains. Rather the goal is to be admitted by the mountain, to become one, to coexist. In those moments you will find peace, you will find happiness. In those moments you will find your reward.