Much like fingerprints, adventures are unique and one of a kind. They are experiences that are enjoyed, interpreted and remembered differently from one person to the next. We take our own previous experiences, emotions and attitudes into the wild and form new ones. This gives each of us a different reality for the same adventure. My recent revisit of Alaska was no exception to this phenomenon. Although I had been to the same areas at the same time of year, last year, this trip was drastically different and in many ways, better. While snow and mountain conditions didn’t pan out for numerous heli-ski days, it didn’t seem to matter or bother any of us. Nearly all of the characters of this story are the same from last year, but the vibe and stoke were quite different. More chill, more adventurous, more amazing.
The snowpack this year as compared to last was much better. The el Niño experienced in the Western United States provided a much greater amount of precipitation. However, in true el Niño fashion, the temps were a bit warmer, as was the case of the Chugach and eastern Alaska mountain ranges. Just in the time we were in Alaska, there were three deaths due to avalanches in the zones we were in. The unusually warm weather, high levels of sunshine and heat radiation was making the snowpack extremely unstable. Every day we were in the mountains, we witnessed or avoided slides. Safe travel practices, careful snow evaluations and aspect choices were very important. It would also mean that the better snow would be found in the higher elevations and thus, a bit more difficult to access.
During the week of the 31st Annual Arctic Man Classic where weather would once again create havoc on the race and its participants, my partner in crime and three time Arctic Man champ, James Scott and I would make a couple freefall and wingsuit jumps into an approaching snowstorm. If there’s one thing about the weather in Alaska, if you don’t like it, wait five minutes. That’s about exactly how long it took for the storm to appear and hit. Safely on the ground, our ground crew of friends on snow machines scooped us up and it was back to focusing on the race for James. In the end, after a two day weather delay, James and about 1/4th of the mens field would be knocked out of the race, literally. Some of the racers who did not finish were Olympic and World Cup athletes. Several of the racers, both snow machine drivers and skier/snowboarders, would be sent to the hospital for concussions and seriously broken appendages. While I had already opted not to run the race this year, this made my participation in last year’s all the more real. This race truly is the real deal.
With the race behind us and the Chugach ahead of us, we changed our focus to skiing and good times with great friends. Thompson Pass (about 45 minutes north of Valdez, in the heart of the world famous Chugach Mountains) would be our home and base camp for the next two weeks. The forecast was calling for calm winds and blue skies almost every day for the next 10 days. It’s always nice when you roll into camp and see this in the forecast. It’s even better when you learn that everyone who had been there for the last two weeks had dealt with gray, doom and gloom. Someone up above must really like us!!! As it would turn out, we would deal with one more day of gray before things cleared. And like most mountain weather, we would play hide and seek and the waiting game from time to time. That’s just how it goes though.
After a few days playing in the mountains on snow machines and getting some ski and speedriding runs in, our buddy Clyde Hewitt asked us if we wanted to go down into the rabbit hole. Slightly perplexed, a little intrigued and a lot scared, we inquired what he meant. Clyde explained that the rabbit hole is what he calls an ice cave at the tongue of the Worthington Glacier. I was pretty apprehensive, but when Clyde said everything would be fine “because we had a rope,” my apprehension turned to anxiety. Now, if you don’t already know, I have a pretty severe fear of heights and a healthy fear of tight places. Both come from my need for control and both cause me great distress. While I had hopes that this would be one of those large, wide open, walk in style caves, all hopes went out the window when we pulled up to the “hole.” As we tied the rope off to one of the snow machines, I came to the realization that this may not go well for me. It was about 20+ feet down and a tight fit to say the least with at least 50-75+ feet of ice above. After everyone else had gone down, I got about a fourth of the way in and things got really tight. I stopped, took several breaths and called out to everyone else that I wasn’t too sure about things. After what seemed like at least 10 minutes (but was probably more like 10 seconds), I got up the nerve to “think small” and slide my way down the ice hole and to the bottom of the cave. This is the part where I will concede that I still to this day do not have the proper words to describe the feeling and the view from inside this cave. There was exposed rock with massive marks (scars) from where rock and ice had scraped up against it for millennia. There were large fissures and millions of tiny air bubbles inside the clear and blue ice. I use the term ice very loosely because this isn’t the ice you make in your freezer. This ice, despite all of the tiny air bubbles, is incredibly dense from all of the pressure exerted upon it from the snow and ice above it. The best way to describe this ice is to think of it in terms of how diamonds are formed by the incredible pressure and unimaginably long amount of time placed upon a piece of coal. But while diamonds can be artificially made in science labs, these glaciers cannot. After looking around in awe and conversing about how amazing this was, we decided to head back to camp, but this experience is one I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I felt so small and so insignificant in that cave.
The next several days were spent with some of the most amazing, fun spirited friends a person could ask for. Each of us brought a different skill set, level of enthusiasm and threshold for adventure and pushing themselves and their abilities. Our friend MoAnna Bradshaw is probably one of the most ripping snow machine riders you’ll ever meet. Her boyfriend Clyde Hewitt is an incredibly talented photographer (his photos are featured in this blog!) and equally awesome on a snow machine. James Scott is the guy you can’t help but love, but hate to be around because he is so ridiculously good at everything he does. Our buddy Justin Boer is a paragliding and speedriding instructor and guru who, despite having a peripheral spinal cord injury, is one of the sickest pilots around. Nick Dynes is a coworker of James’, a Fairbanks, Alaska native and a newer speedriding pilot. All around, we made a pretty rad crew! Together, we traveled over 200 miles on snow machines across dozens of glaciers and up and down couple hundred thousand feet of vertical. We skied and speed rode down steep pow runs and cascading ice falls. Sometimes narrowly missing or flying over crevasses that would have swallowed us whole. At times, it was hard to fully comprehend what we were doing and where we were at. It seemed that no matter how much we flew next to, off of and over massive seracs or traveled up and down the massive glaciers that disappeared on the horizon, we would never see it all. Through every pass and around every corner, there were more mountains and more glaciers. One glacier met and merged into another and another and another. As if all this weren't enough, on one of our last adventures, we went to a zone known as Abercrombie. It took us about 5 glaciers and three passes to get to it, but once there and on top, we could see all the way past the termination of the Valdez Glacier into Prince William Sound (to the south), past The Books (to the east) and to the rest of Alaska to the Northwest. It seemed that we were on top of the world. Yet once again, I felt incredibly small and insignificant. We had just traveled nearly 30 miles across half a dozen glaciers, each of which were hundreds if not a thousand of feel deep and some of which over a mile wide. We were nothing but a speck on the map, yet cause so much damage to this wonderful and wondrous place. I had been on top of and below these glaciers and had seen their incredible size and power. But no matter how large and powerful they are, they are still no match for the devastating power of man and our devices. It was this recurring thought that kept me and keeps me appreciating the moments I spend in the mountains with my friends and family. It helps me appreciate those steep and deep pow days, corny spring days and blurry fast speed riding runs so much more.
As the remaining days of my trip lessened, we were able to link up with two amazing friends and long time ski guides in both the Chugach and Argentina Andes, Sunny and Mike Hamilton. Just winding down their heli-ski season, Sunny and Mike were nice enough to drag us around the Odyssey and Dimond Zones of Thompson Pass. It is incredible what over a decade of guiding in a region can do when it comes to knowledge. These two know every nook and cranny, every peak name and every route to, from and around a pass, peak, coulior and bowl. Sunny was usually leading the charge while Mike and the rest of us followed in amazement and wonder. Like, “I wonder where the heck she is taking us!!” Regardless of their techniques, they found us the goods. Great pow and perfect winds. Eventually the days culminated in a couple runs where Mike and Sunny skied their way down a glacial snowfield while James and I flew next to and over them. It’s pretty awesome when you can combine different disciplines and have them come together in beaming smiles and repeated high fives.
Finally, my pesky cold and fun filled days in Alaska came to an end. It seemed as if winter too was coming to an end as the Worthington Lot was now void of snow and the faint sound of rivers flowing was growing a bit louder. While I’ll never forget my first time in Alaska, my first heli-ski turns or my first time going 70+ mph behind a snow machine on skis, I will most certainly never forget my second time either. When life was put a little more in perspective while standing above and below the surface of a living, moving block of ice that was born and has lived for millennia. While it probably raised many more questions than it answered for me; for at least a few moments, I came to understand a part of what life is about: Sharing moments with each other, appreciating those moments and those individuals and doing our part to ensure that we are able to continue sharing those moments with each other.
Zach Carbo is a former member of the 75th Ranger Regiment and a sponsored SOFLETE athlete, living life to the beat of his own drummer in the PNW.