The Pika Glacier, Alaska
Ian Bolliger & Spencer James
The Sidetracked Adventure Fund Winners 2014
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.
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.
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.
In addition, we would like to say thanks to the following groups, who all contributed funds, gear, or training to further promote our efforts:
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.