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University Peak: Take One

Words: Erin Smart | Photography: Krystle Wright

We gazed through the window of our rented minivan; past the dense green forest, and on towards the peaks surrounding the lonely Alaskan highway. Eventually, a tiny airport sign appeared and we knew – we were finally here. Chitina airstrip is a diminutive log cabin with a red tin roof which stands alone next to the dirt airstrip. The sign on the building reads “Ultima Thule Outfitters”.

As the chill wind tugged at our jackets, we lined up our gear, trying to keep everything as tight as possible. The owner, and lead pilot for Ultima Thule is Paul Claus, who we needed to make a strong first impression with. Ultima Thule is the only way to fly into the Wrangell St-Elias range, and Paul ultimately decides where to land a team. We had our sights set high.

The south face of University Peak is a steep and rugged 7,000ft ski-mountaineering line in the Wrangell St-Elias National Park. After guiding on nearby mountains for several seasons, and flying by the peak many times, my friend Sheldon Kerr had become inspired and resolved to put a team together to try to ski this seldom-climbed monster. She recruited Lindsay Mann, the ultra skier and entertainer of the group, Krystle Wright as the group’s photographer/videographer, and I was brought on board as the ski-mountaineering guide for Krystle. Our principal limitation was going to be the season – getting two athletes, a mountain guide and an adventure photographer together in the middle of the busy work season required setting considerable time aside, which would be tricky.

Leading up to our trip, we had received reports that the south face was looking grey with ice, and imagery we received a few weeks out definitely showed a considerable amount of ice and little snow. In Alaska, a month is nothing and the mountains can change dramatically in that time so we stayed positive, hoping for a wet storm to plaster the south face. Yet no storm came, and we were forced to come up with alternatives. The beauty of the Wrangell St-Elias range for ski-mountaineering is that there are incredible lines in every direction, so we weren’t panicking just yet. We knew that we would be able to find steep faces to ski, no matter where we landed.

Paul flew us down University’s majestic south face in a sweeping arc, and the now grey and blue ice was clear and almost mocking us. Its belligerence would be a great objective for an ice climb this season, but was undoubtedly out for ski mountaineering. Unfortunately, there is little else to ski from the base camp below University, so landing there to wait for a wet storm would likely result in two weeks of hanging out. We were there to ski. Decision made, the plane banked sharply away and we flew towards one of the tongues of the immense Barnard Glacier.

‘Not many people have been in here on skis,’ Paul enthused through our headsets as the plane touched down on the glacier. ‘Have fun exploring.’ Five minutes and our duffels and skis were laid out on the snow, and Paul was gone. We were alone in the Alaskan wilderness.

‘Not many people have been in here on skis,’ Paul enthused through our headsets as the plane touched down on the glacier. ‘Have fun exploring.’ Five minutes and our duffels and skis were laid out on the snow, and Paul was gone. We were alone in the Alaskan wilderness.
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We would look up at a couloir from camp, and anticipate a half-day climb and ski, only to realise hours later, usually about halfway up, that we were again being humbled by the sheer size of the mountains in Alaska, and there was a considerable distance still to cover.
We set up base camp at 7,200ft on the Barnard. The tongue we landed on – a tiny section of the whole – stretched for a mile either side of us, and spanned two main ridge systems which fell away beneath us for over six miles. We were small and insignificant against this immense slab of ice and snow. Yet, scattered throughout the ridges was a remote wilderness of peaks, couloirs, and skiing lines which might just be some of the best ski-mountaineering we had ever experienced.

I recall that first night vividly. The expedition had taken many months of preparation, planning and logistics to become a reality. Krystle had injured her knee a week out and that, coupled with being forced to pore over maps to find alternatives given the worsening conditions, meant it was a memorable night. Krystle would later discover the injury was more serious than she thought – a medial collateral ligament tear – and I wonder how she managed as well as she did.

Over the next 10 days, our personal life was simple, but the skiing itself complex. We would wake up, high on the glacier, to hot coffee and a warm breakfast of sizzling bacon. Then we would set off to explore, tour, navigate cracks, climb and ski everywhere we could. University’s icy face was just the beginning of our realisation that Wrangell St-Elias was an unwelcoming host this season. Hot days, icy slopes and sagging snow bridges became the norm. Undeterred by the dearth of soft snow, Lindsay, Sheldon and myself found spectacular lines to climb, and Krystle was always able to position nearby, working hard against the pain of the MCL tear.

It’s amazing how the eye becomes attuned to scale. I had spent the winter in Chamonix, where the peaks are immense, but the glaciers themselves are much smaller. In Alaska, the glaciers have a curious knack of making the steep faces on the surrounding peaks look smaller than they really are. We would look up at a couloir from camp, and anticipate a half-day climb and ski, only to realise hours later, usually about halfway up, that we were again being humbled by the sheer size of the mountains in Alaska, and there was a considerable distance still to cover.

Climbing up the first couloir of the trip, a cold wind was at our backs as we fumbled with our transitions in the steep snow. Thinking the booting would remain consistent, we held back putting our crampons on right away. Once past the bergschrund, we assumed the ropes could go away. Sheldon and I swapped putting in the boot pack, but before long, the hard plastic of our ski boots was not penetrating the rock-hard ice face. We down climbed to a softer section, transitioned to crampons, and Sheldon got the rope out to give Lindsay more confidence. At around 3,000ft, the face became even more beset with grey and blue ice; we decided to ski from there, where we could still edge into a transition. Lindsay, once in her skis, came off the rope and arched into inch-perfect, controlled turns down the couloir. Sheldon and I followed her line and met up at the bottom. Across the valley was another enticing couloir, this one in the sun. With the cold wind still quarrelsome, we scurried across the expanse and checked off another line.

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To my mind, it’s the people who make a trip, rather than the objective. While each of us dealt with the disappointment of being prevented from skiing University this season in our own way, we knew the line wasn’t going anywhere, and that we would be back someday soon. Entering the mountains with strong, informed partners meant it was an easy decision for all of us upon seeing the blue ice. We knew we were here to ski, not to sit at a camp for two weeks blinded by the objective. We made the best of what the season gave us, and came away with several big ski descents off the Barnard glacier.
On the last day, we traversed over to a beautiful couloir we had been watching from camp. It was a perfect snowy passage up to the col, with steep rocky sidewalls defining the line down the face and into the heavily-crevassed glacier. By now, our transitions were smooth and controlled, and we cruised up the sheer climb to the notch at the top. One-by-one we skied the couloir, carefully, as the snow was a firm breakable crust, focusing our attention on each turn above the gaping cracks. While not the best snow of the trip by far, it was the best run. We revelled in the satisfaction of exploring and skiing a new line, which was a vignette for the entire expedition – unexpected, surprising and rewarding. In camp that night, we looked back on the trip with genuine fondness – University could wait for another year.

The alarm chimed early, and we managed to pack up camp to time perfectly with our pick-up. The plane’s long, wide skis slid into take-off and our camp walls evaporated into the white of the storm which approached. Scanning the world below, we watched our ski descents, now being covered with new snow, disappear as our presence was erased in a heartbeat. Cruising past those magnificent peaks, watching my passion pass beneath me at such a vibrant pace, hypnotised me into silence. The glaciers and snow-clad summits segued quickly into vast green forests, and then faded into the weaves of the Chitina riverbed. I began to yearn for the next great adventure – where the inexorable cycle of the exploration of self inside the wilderness of the mountains would continue. That’s what it’s like – one adventure ends and another begins.

Erin Smart Krystle Wright

Erin Smart is a Seattle native who has dedicated her life to skiing and climbing in the mountains. She has pioneered a number of first descents in the North Cascades of Washington State. Erin splits her time between the Cascades and Chamonix, France and works as a ski mountaineering guide, avalanche instructor, writer and photographer.

Website: erinsmart.com

Krystle Wright is a pioneering Australian photographer who is accelerating the awareness and visibility of the most extreme sports and adventures to the world.

Website: wrightfoto.com.au
Twitter: KrystleWright

Facebook: Krystle Wright

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