A Weekend Trip to Alaska: Touring the Turnagain Pass // Ski Stories
Most people don’t head all the way to Alaska for a long weekend trip, however, I figured I’d give it a go. If you get the opportunity to travel to Alaska, do it! Cheap tickets are hard to pass up, so when the opportunity presented itself, I quickly went for it. In the week leading up to my departure, I kept checking the weather only to find different predictions being posted every day.
My incredibly cheap tickets were classified as "basic Economy" which means I was the lowest priority in just about every airline category. No cancellations, no seat selection, no carry-on bags and worst of all, no mileage points. As for hardgood ski equipment, I decided on a single pair of skis; Nordica Enforcer 110s mounted with Salomon Shift bindings paired with Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD ski boots. While these boots lean towards the “ski-mountaineering-racing” weight category, they do a really good job driving a full-on alpine ski, like the Enforcer 110s.
I was staying with my friend Hannah in Girdwood, Alaska. A small town south of Anchorage, at the base of Alyeska ski resort. As I rolled into town, it seemed like I never left Vermont as everyone was wearing Skida. Girdwood is a really small resort town with lots of great people. Everyone I met was just excited to be outside in such an amazing location. If you find yourself in Girdwood, you should prioritize stopping by one of the main attractions, Girdwood Brewing Company, to grab a beer (or kombucha).
DAY 1: Sunburst Mountain, Turnagain Pass, -16ºF
The first day of my trip was insanely cold. As we drove into the pass the temperature on the car dashboard started to drop. It hit a low of -16º F at the parking lot of Sunburst Mountain in Turnagain Pass. The extreme weather called for packing multiple down jackets and some Lenz heated socks. My hands froze lightly to my boot buckles as we booted up in the dark parking lot. It’s not hard to feel like you are in a TGR movie ascending up huge Alaskan backcountry mountains with headlamps on, just be sure to start skiing at 8:00 AM on account of the limited amount of daylight. It’s important to monitor body temperature by picking an endurance pace that works for your group and taking off unnecessary layers to prevent sweating. In extremely cold weather, swapping a base layer could result in some serious frostbite. Our ascent was also limited by the cold air that made every breath harder and harder.
If you are flying with an Avalanche Airbag (after safely letting out ALL of the air) remove the air canister lid before heading into the security line. The amount you will scare a TSA personnel will most likely depend on where in the world you head through the security line.
While days with extremely low-temperature add more challenges, they also generally offer beautiful crisp views. The sunrise cast a purple glow over the mountains as the sun started to rise. As we came close to reaching the peak of Sunburst, we could see for miles over thousands of white-capped mountains.
Unlike the East Coast, it might not snow for over a week and you can still find untouched veins in some of the more popular backcountry zones.
After our early approach in the morning was limited by cold weather, we decided to head out on a lower alpine ski tour from the base of Alyeska to The Chugach Powder Guide Hut. Later in the winter, there’s a Snowcat that runs from the resort base to the Hut for some amazing backcountry skiing. However, if you want to get some exercise and catch a sunset casting over the Chugach mountains, you can also head out for a tour on the groomed trail up to the hut.
DAY 2: Alyeska Resort, 23ºF
Alyeska offers some pretty amazing terrain and views all at once. Alyeska is sitting on an inlet of the Gulf of Alaska and offers some of the steepest sustained resort terrain that I’ve seen. If you get lucky with the snowpack stability, the North Face chutes will be open. As a result of the steep pitch and weather patterns, this area of the mountain has extremely high avalanche danger most of the year. Fortunately, it was open the day I bought a pass. If you feel like living lavishly, stop for a drink and food at the Seven Glaciers restaurant at the top of the tram. If you are over 21 years old, ask about the ‘Fizz’ a secret drink that’s not on the menu.
After skiing for several hours we decided to partake in an IceBug shoe 5k race/run/demo. IceBug studded running shoes are equipped with carbide stud, giving you traction on glare ice and hard-packed snow. A few hundred people met up near the base of the resort mid-afternoon to test out some shoes. The course twisted around town and then of course ended at the Girdwood Brewery Company.
Alyeska is open from 10:30 am to 9:30 pm, so naturally, we went back for some more laps post-race. Night skiing has always been a common activity for me as I grew up Alpine ski racing, but there was something different about doing it in Alyeska. The resort lights seemed to bleed allowing for some unconventional terrain to be illuminated. Make sure to bring yellow or clear lens goggles for optimal night vision while skiing. The aerial tram offered its own vibe. Riding up with a mixed crowd while listening to different music every lap was a fun way to pass the four-minute ride to the top.
DAY 3: Tin Can Peak, Turnagain Pass, 38ºF
Loading into the trusty Volvo with studded snow tires, it was pouring rain in town. I had no idea what Turnagain pass would hold, but I stayed hopeful for a vast temperature change as we drove up into the pass, gaining elevation. The roads were a mess as eleven inches of snow had fallen overnight before turning into the rain that was now falling. The two forms of precipitation were not mixing well. As we drove to the pass, the roads became worse. At multiple points, we were essentially driving on an ice rink (big shout out to Hannah and her studded tires). At the first parking lot, the skiing conditions were not looking good so we continued to drive. As we approached the Tin Can parking lot, one of the more popular backcountry ski areas, the perception started to look more like snow.
As we began to ascend up Tin Can, snow started to clump to the top of the skis and bottom of our skins. Everything became heavy and our skins had no glide, but we persisted. After climbing about one thousand feet, the snow got colder and everyone became a lot happier. We were prepared with beacons, shovels, and probes but decided to stay below treeline as avalanche conditions were rated “Considerable”. All the wet snow and wind had resulted in dangerous Wind Slabs on aspects above the treeline. Regardless, the skiing was super fun, loaded with features like steep rolling headwalls and decent size cliffs. Below treeline skiing is a great alternative when the avalanche danger is high up above.
My flight left only hours after we finished skiing. I packed my wet Flylow Baker Bibs, Flylow Higgins Jacket and three days worth of base layer around my skis, already dreading unpacking the mess I just created.
During my short trip I experienced a temperature swing over 50º F, starting at -16º F and working all the way to 38ºF. The weather in Alaska can be very volatile, but if you are motivated you can generally still get out into the backcountry and poke around. Check out our 6 Backcountry Ski Safety Tips for some tips for staying safe off-piste. Hopefully, I will have the opportunity to go back soon and maybe get some heliskiing in!