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The Pika Glacier, Alaska

Ian Bolliger & Spencer James
The Sidetracked Adventure Fund Winners 2014

Spencer: It’s 12:30pm on a Thursday. A week ago, I was finishing my 8 hour board exam for medical school, and now I’m in the middle of a near-whiteout on a granite wall towering over the Pika Glacier, deep in the Alaska Range. Fog moves in and out, providing glimpses of the glacier in the distance and the rocky peaks a mile away. As Ian tiptoes his way in ski boots up the granite crack above the ledge I’m standing on, cascades of snow rumble down the couloir 50 feet to our right. The fog amplifies the sound so it sounds more like a big wave crashing than snow sliding. Shrouding our views, the fog also creates spatial ambiguity. Where exactly are these slides being released from and where are they going? Are we in the slide path? As if mocking us, another deep rumble of snow starts cascading over the granite wall a few hundred feet to our left. This one rockets over hundreds of feet of overhanging granite, the fresh Alaskan snow slowly dissipating into the foggy air below. As Ian kicks his way over the first 20 foot feature of this rock pitch, I consider – not for the first time this week – how flying into this remote mountain range in a distant corner of the planet has at once inspired my sense of adventure and, at the same time, reinstated the sense of humility I find in the mountains.

As slides continue rocketing down to our right and left, humility wins out over inspiration and I shout up to Ian that we should head down. In truth, I’m relieved when he agrees. He sets gear, throws down the rope, and a few minutes later he has rappelled back to the ledge having cleaned the handful of cams placed during his block-footed struggle up the finger crack. The visibility is still near zero as we climb down to the snow ledge that provided access to the rock. We look directly across one of the couloirs, which is now being swept by slides every two minutes, and at the route we took to access the rock which had cut right across the path of those slides. Radios are turned on, gear is checked, and we hurriedly discuss descent options. On the one hand, the heavy snow and buried boulder-sized avalanche debris from the days prior makes for treacherous skiing beyond the fringes of more recent slides. Yet the hazard associated with ripping down the throat of this slide path is not lost on either of us. After a short discussion, Ian settles on slicing some turns right inside the near border of the avalanche track.

Ian looks up into the couloir above one last time, and then he’s gone, taking advantage of several steep turns after a week where the both the weather and the snowpack have done their best to curb our lofty ambitions. A few minutes later, I hear him shout up – the fog has somehow amplified his voice – that he’s clear. Turning on my helmet camera, I take a few turns, dodging huge chunks of avalanche debris, and then point my skis towards the bottom of the chute where the terrain opens up beyond the end of the numerous neighbouring slide paths. On finding Ian, both of us share a collective deep breath and high-five on our safe exit before starting the slow, slushy ski back to camp.

Turning on my helmet camera, I take a few turns, dodging huge chunks of avalanche debris, and then point my skis towards the bottom of the chute where the terrain opens up beyond the end of the numerous neighbouring slide paths. On finding Ian, both of us share a collective deep breath and high-five on our safe exit before starting the slow, slushy ski back to camp.
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I realised time and time again during this trip that expeditions are fundamentally about enjoying and finding meaning in the process, and that skiing the line of your dreams ends up being merely the icing on the cake.
On the way, I contemplate the day. We’d spent most of the week listening to Ian’s country playlist in the tent, waiting for a decent weather window while getting pummelled by storm after storm. This morning’s weather had been promising, so we’d set out to climb and ski some steep couloirs that had been enticing us all week. As we started climbing the snow couloir out of the glacier, the conditions felt shaky so we shifted onto the rock and started climbing. As the slides started increasing in both frequency and amplitude, we were forced to make a rapid egress back to camp. I’d spent the last several months studying maps and photos, dreaming of climbing and skiing these peaks, and now it felt a stretch to get more than a few turns in per day. Disappointing, sure, but when I took the time to reflect on the grander scheme of things, I found myself marveling at how incredible it was to be spending time out in the Alaska Range at all, regardless of whether we got the best skiing. I realised time and time again during this trip that expeditions are fundamentally about enjoying and finding meaning in the process, and that skiing the line of your dreams ends up being merely the icing on the cake.

Ian: It’s Friday, June 20th – our last day in this fog-engulfed paradise. For the fifth consecutive morning, I awake to the sound of my iPhone alarm at 4am, groggy yet still eager to tear open the tent flap and find the previous day’s slush frozen into a firm climbing surface beneath a clear Alaskan sky. Instead, as has occurred each of the four previous days, dizzying nothingness confronts me. The misty air allows me only to imagine the jagged rock faces that undoubtedly still hold our camp hostage beneath their peaks. Discouraged once again, yet too sleepy to express such emotion, I mutter complaints about the dreary conditions to Spencer. He grumbles an acknowledgement, and we both curl deeper into our sleeping bags for a few more hours of rest.

Five hours later, and we have eaten, cleaned up camp, and are just finishing the laborious, time-consuming task of stomping out a runway for TAT to come and steal us away from our temporary home. There is a line clearly visible from camp that I have been eyeing since we arrived. It snakes between a granite pyramid and an imposing crevasse, darting then into a hidden corridor that winds through further glacial obstacles only to emerge again in sight of camp, half a kilometre down the glacier. On Day Three, we had scoped that same line from its start. Cautiously, I had ventured out on belay and performed a ski cut, traversing the slope quickly and hopping to kick off as much of the loose snow as possible. At the time, deep and heavy point releases gobbled up by gaping holes in the glacier below had discouraged me from attempting this route. Yet viewing the line from camp later on, I had seen numerous safe zones that dotted the landscape – sidelines I could enter after a few turns and allow any snow I may have kicked off to slide harmlessly by before resuming. Now, with no chores left to tackle before the plane arrives, my restless nature gets the better of me and I quickly gather my gear to tackle this one last objective.

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Not knowing exactly when the plane will arrive, I am dripping sweat as I hurry to reach the start of the line, my skins whining as they glide over the smooth snowpack. On reaching the top I run through the line once more in my mind, envisioning the entrance and exit of each safe zone. A radio call to Spencer confirms that he’s set up his tripod and is ready to shoot the thirty seconds of skiing he’ll be able to before I drop out of sight behind lumbering crevasses and seracs. Thrilled to finally get some sun-soaked footage, I take a calming breath and drop in. Several quick turns later I’m at the first safe zone, pausing and looking up to see a large cascade of slough tumbling past. After a few seconds it’s gone, swallowed up by the hungry crevasses below, and I repeat this process several times more. I dart from one zone to the next before the slope opens up a bit, the crevasses disappear, and I am able to relax and link several large-radius turns before reconnecting with the flat glacier below. Content with some of the best skiing of the trip, I let Spencer know that I’m clear, and then hurriedly pack up my gear. Racing back toward camp, I begin to hear the purr of aircraft engines as one of TAT’s signature red fuselages crests the SE peaks.
Thirty minutes later we are seated inside as the plane taxis out to head back towards Talkeetna. We depart as we had arrived, amidst glaring sunshine and perfect visibility. The days we spent meandering through dense fog, rain, and snow feel utterly foreign as we once again view enticing, beautiful ski lines from an aerial perspective. Frustration at not having skied these objectives mixes with an eclectic series of emotions as the Alaska Range slides past beneath us. I feel an immediate pull to return in order to accomplish the goals we initially set for ourselves. I’m also proud of everything we’ve learned during this expedition. From the months of planning and organising, to the moment I dropped into that final line earlier in the day, each experience has taught me a little more about what it takes to execute a trip like this, and I cannot wait to come back better prepared and more experienced. As with any committing trip, I’m relieved to be exiting safely. Our preparation and training, as well as a cautious attitude when dealing with the dangerous conditions, had paid off.

From this mixture of thoughts, however, a feeling of immense appreciation dominates. I had dreamed of undertaking an expedition like this one for years, yet I had never been completely sure it would be possible. My gratitude for the support of countless individuals, and for Spencer’s eagerness to devote his limited free time to this endeavour, is the one emotion I simply can’t shake as our wheels finally bounce to a halt on the long runway in Talkeetna and we ‘officially’ return to civilisation.


As mentioned, this expedition would not have been possible without the generous support of numerous folks. First and foremost, we would like to thank Sidetracked for their generous support. Without them, there would have been no trip, nor would we have been able to tell you about it. As mentioned in our grant application, their funds went toward the purchase of two vital pieces of equipment: whippets and peanut butter.

In addition, we would like to say thanks to the following groups, who all contributed funds, gear, or training to further promote our efforts:

Alpkit for donating jackets and cookware to keep us and our meals warm
Lowepro for supplying us with tools to safely transport our camera equipment

American Alpine Club (via the Live Your Dream Grant) afforded us funds that went toward purchasing the glacier flights needed to reach the Pika.

Second Ascent generously donated climbing hardware that kept us safe and well-equipped throughout our expedition. They also provided a forum through which we can share our experiences with future amateur ski mountaineers looking to venture to the Alaska Range for similar objectives.

Joos provided the incredibly efficient Joos Orange solar panel kept our cameras and GPS devices alive throughout the trip, enabling us to provide the footage you see in this article.

AtoZdisasterprep.com donated freeze dried food that kept us well-fed and well-energized.

Kaf Adventures helped design some training through which we prepared for various mountaineering aspects of the trip


The days we spent meandering through dense fog, rain, and snow feel utterly foreign as we once again view enticing, beautiful ski lines from an aerial perspective.

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