The small prop plane, with custom ski attachments on the landing gear, is wound up to full-throttle as our pilot, the legendary Drake Olson, accelerates down the glacier for the last time. The high-pitched whine of the Cessna 180 adds to the intensity of the situation; it is clear that getting in and out of this place is no joke. As Drake and his plane crest the horizon, the sun drops behind the mountains, and we are left in total silence. We will be without mechanical assistance for more than two weeks.
We have been dropped on the Morse Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, at the foot of several, small, yet very steep, buttresses covered in spines, ramps, cliffs, crevasses, seracs, and luckily for us, tons and tons of snow. We are a team of eight – four athletes, one photographer, two cinematographers, and one support person. We will set up base camp and spend every possible moment exploring the terrain and skiing without the use of helicopters, chairlifts, or snow machines. The goal is to capture images that will become a segment of the next Sweetgrass Productions film. Sweetgrass Productions is known for making beautiful, soulful films about skiing. They are also known for sharing a special connection to place; this is because they earn every turn that shows up on the screen.
Skiing in Alaska is unlike anything else in the world. Basically everything out there can kill you, and help is a long way away. There is a very steep learning curve to playing in this terrain, and having no mechanical assistance definitely slows progress. This place isn’t static like a ski resort; it is very dynamic. It literally moves. We couldn’t simply warm up and then head out to send the big lines that tempted us. We had to learn about the place and figure out how to move in synch with its demands. We were not the dominant force there.
Before we could ski any hero lines, we needed to simply identify the challenges in front of us. It became apparent that there were two aspects of skiing here that are not found anywhere else.
The terrain is not only steep – it’s convex! It’s rare that you can see more than two or three turns in front of you. Memorizing the line is critical because getting lost can mean going over a cliff or falling in a crevasse. When filming, flow is everything and stopping to look means the shot is lost. This is a terrifying combination. Doubt is omnipresent.
The second challenge is that the snow is more active than any other place in the world. With each turn snow is kicked loose and moves down the hill. Descents have to be planned accordingly. You have a choice, you can move to the side, you can stay in front of it, or you can stay above it by using small ridges called spines. It is surreal to have the snow in front of you moving backward as it billows over your head, yet the snow around you is moving down the hill. The whole situation is disorienting.
But one thing is for sure: we’re not in the Lower 48 anymore!
Independent Descents is written by Donny Roth, who is passionate about sharing the human-powered skiing experience. The blog series focuses on sharing trip reports from around the globe as he connects with people and mountains in destinations near and far. As an athlete, guide, and writer he can be found in a lot of places, check out his website - www.independent-descents.com - to see all the ways you can share in the experience.