Playground and Proving Ground: Skiing and Camping on Alaska’s Pika Glacier

After decades of reverent coverage in ski magazines and movies, Alaska’s steeps are steeped in myth. It’s no stretch to claim that Alaska is to the backcountry skier and splitboarder what the Himalaya are to the mountaineer—it’s both our ultimate playground and proving ground. Between the interminable mountains, bountiful precipitation, and complex, glaciated terrain that simply doesn’t exist in the lower 48, Alaska is deservedly at the top of every backcountry traveler’s bucket list.

However, Alaska is also intimidating for the first-timer—or even the third- or fifth-timer. Questions abound. Where to go? There are a staggering 30 mountain ranges in the 49th state, 17 of the United States’ 20 highest peaks, and seven of ten of our biggest national parks—several of which you’ve probably never even heard of. What to do? There are ski resorts, heli and cat ops, snowmobile meccas, human-powered hubs, and ski plane-assisted touring opportunities. Lastly, how to navigate the cadre of glacial obstacles—crevasses, bergschrunds, and seracs? Even for experienced backcountry skiers and riders, these hazards can be alien and overwhelming. There is, of course, one obvious answer to all of these valid questions: go with a guide who knows where to go, what to do, and how to navigate Alaskan terrain.

In The Company of Guides

Todd Passey, an IFMGA guide and the owner of In the Company of Guides, is one such guide. Based in the foothills of the couloir-rich Wasatch, Passey is no stranger to steep skiing, and he’s put down precipitous lines from Chamonix to Antarctica. He’s also guided the Seven Summits—twice—and tallied a staggering 24 expeditions on Denali, 22 of which were successful attempts, well above the average 50% success rate.  A true ski mountaineer, he’s equally comfortable roped up on a fifth-class ridgeline or hop-turning down a 55-degree couloir. In short, he’s exactly the kind of guide I’d trust to take the lead in Alaska.

Little Switzerland and the Pika Glacier

After getting to know Passey in the Wasatch backcountry—he helped me test and review avalanche safety gear—and familiarizing myself with his resume, I signed up for his mid-April trip to the Pika Glacier. Located in Denali National Park, the Pika juts off of the colossal Kahiltna Glacier, which begins on the slopes of Denali and is the longest glacier in the Alaska Range. The Pika Glacier is much smaller—a tributary to the Kahiltna’s river, as it were—in the heart of a zone lovingly dubbed “Little Switzerland.” As the name suggests, Little Switzerland is known for rock routes and aesthetic couloirs on granite spires that shoot out the ice like sheer stone skyscrapers. It is, first and foremost, a zone popular with alpinists, but it’s become more and more popular with skiers over recent years. Passey assured me that the Pika has terrain for every ability level and would be a fantastic opportunity to push myself in steep, glaciated terrain.

Once our small crew—Passey, myself, and three other clients—linked up in Anchorage, we took a two-hour shuttle to Talkeetna, a funky town on the Susitna River that serves as a jumping off point for excursions into Denali National Park. From there, we hopped into one of Talkeetna Air Taxi’s DHC-3 Otter bush planes and buzzed north into the park.

Blessed with mostly clear skies—perfect flying and skiing conditions—the flight was cinematic. The giants of Mount Denali, Foraker, and Hunter drew the eye, but even the lesser peaks were jaw-dropping, too, particularly to the fall line-inclined freerider, who can’t help but chart descents down couloirs and chutes when proffered a bird’s eye view. I shot photos of a few choice lines from the plane windows—unaware that in a couple of days, we’d have the opportunity to ride one of them.

Base Camp and Beyond

The Otter touched down on the glacier, making use of a landing strip formed by a multitude of trips dropping off climbers and skiers. At first glance, I was a bit disappointed to note just how many groups were on the glacier—seven or eight when we first landed. We timed our trip during a mind-bogglingly clear high-pressure window, and many groups had rallied to make the most of the window. Most of the trophy lines surrounding camp were tracked. We’d soon note that while shaded north aspects were still holding cold powder, sunny skies had baked the rest of the compass rose into a corn cycle. Thankfully, Passey is a truffle pig, well-accustomed to sniffing out the goods in the overcrowded Wasatch, and he led us to fresh tracks and rad lines throughout the week.

Before we got to explore our new home—a glacier surrounded by stunning peaks and tantalizing lines in every direction—we set up base camp. Part of the beauty of a trip like this, with a drop-off via bush plane, is the luxuries you’re able to bring. Unlike a human-powered winter camping trip or backcountry ski traverse, where you can only bring what you can carry, we were each afforded approximately 140 pounds of gear. We each had our own tent—part of In the Company of Guides’ COVID protocols—and a communal cook tent. We were also able to bring two pairs of skis—or in my case, splitboards—which eased concern of breaking a binding or snapping a ski deep in the Alaskan wilderness. After hauling our piles of gear to our camp with expedition sleds, we stomped out platforms, erected our tents, shoveled pathways through camp, and dug out a latrine (you pee in a single hole in camp out of respect for future groups, and go number two in Park-supplied Clean Mountain Cans (CMCs) so you can haul out your waste).

Once camp was set up, we settled into the cook tent, and Passey whipped up the first of many delicious, filling meals. Throughout the week we feasted on salmon burritos, shrimp curry, steak and fries, to name but a few. Candy bars, too, were gobbled voraciously, as we averaged between three and four thousand vertical feet of touring per day and clocked serious mileage on the rolling terrain of the glacier.

That first morning, we had coffee looking out at the aptly named peaks surrounding our little tent village: the Crown Jewel, the Royal Tower, The North and South Troll, The Throne. There would be no dawn patrols during our week on the glacier—the sun rose before we woke and set after we went to sleep. Besides, Passey pointed out, the shaded north-facing lines we were hunting would be skiing well all day long.

After breakfast, we worked through an abridged crevasse rescue training, going over various scenarios, none of them pleasant, that involved one or more of our party falling into one of the many gaps in the glacier. We practiced anchor building, then moved on to ascension—the easiest retrieval technique, assuming the fallen skier isn’t too injured to tie in and climb the rope—as well as hauling dead weight via pulley systems. Once Passey was satisfied that the four of us were capable of hauling him out of a crevasse, we skinned out from camp and into the awe-inspiring peaks of the Alaska Range.

Getting Our (Vertical) Feet Wet

That first day was largely exploratory. We poked into some steep, rocky terrain, practicing ice axe techniques from the jump, then worked our way up and over a pass. With Passey setting a steady but manageable pace, we soon abandoned the tracked-out zone close to camp and found ourselves in a majestic amphitheater that hadn’t seen skiers since the last storm. Passey and one of the clients, an alpine climber, ogled the rock, charting imaginary routes up the vertical faces. We set our sights on a small col, which was miniscule compared to the rock walls around us, but still required a 45- to 60-minute skin.

The second day was our first full day of skiing, and we took full advantage. We skinned down glacier, towards the Kahiltna, and banked right into a cirque. We saw a pair of skiers booting into a north-facing couloir that we’d had our eye on—an obvious, striking behemoth I’d shot from the plane. Disheartened, we began to consider our other options, only to watch them bail at the base of the couloir.

Sure enough, the snow might as well have been concrete in the middle of the couloir—a mess of refrozen, chunky debris. Halfway up the 1200-foot-plus couloir, one of the clients, an Aussie and former professional triathlete who had flung himself headlong into skiing but had only been at it for a couple of seasons, voiced concerns. “Todd, I think I’m out on this one. I’m worried I won’t be able to hold an edge on this ice.”

Passey edged out of the firm snow, towards the right flank of the couloir, which was steeper—closer to 50 or even 55-degrees in places—and faced north. “I’m climbing over here, because it’s firm,” he explained. “Watch how much softer it gets as I move over here. I think you can do it, but I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to.”

Convinced, the Aussie—who’d never used an ice axe before in his life—continued climbing. We topped out, transitioned, and traversed to the north-facing wall. Passey was right—the truffle pig triumphant. A few of the turns were so steep you’d catch a little bit of air underneath your skis whether you liked it or not, but they were creamy, dreamy, and forgiving. Flush with adrenaline and the success of our treasure hunt, we leapfrogged one by one down the couloir. At the bottom, amidst hoots and hollers, the Aussie let loose a profane refrain that would inevitably be uttered many more times over during the rest of the week: “That was fuckin’ insane!”

That afternoon, we opted for another north-facing shot, a little less steep but postcard picturesque, making powder turns alongside mammoth seracs. Sweaty as we were stoked, we slogged back up the glacier to camp. We drank a well-earned beer, tucked into another one of Passey’s hearty masterpieces, and promptly stumbled into our tents, dog-tired and ready for bed.

No Fall Zone on the Crown Jewel

That day set the rhythm for the week. We’d wake up, drink coffee, eat breakfast, then hunt for north-facing powder—and occasionally corn—under bluebird skies. Consensus amongst Passey and the other guides that we spoke to was that the window of absurdly clear weather was unheard of in April, and we made the most of it. As the week went on, we rode a variety of terrain, much of it of decent pitch, but I wasn’t quite sated. I’d come to Alaska to ride steeper lines—to seriously push myself—and I told Passey as much. There was a steep, lightning-shaped couloir on the Crown Jewel—the sole north-facing couloir visible from camp that hadn’t yet been skied—and it was calling my name. I glanced at it constantly and dropped not-so-subtle hints that we should be the group to rip it. On the fourth day of our trip, Passey relented. The other clients weren’t interested in the line, and Passey got them set up safely lapping the cold powder below the bergschrund of the couloir.

“There’s a reason why this hasn’t been skied,” Passey said on the approach, pointing out the triple-stacked bergschrund at its base. Not only was the jagged staircase of a schrund a terrain trap if one were to lose control on the descent, but it was also dangerous, if not impenetrable, while climbing.

Instead, we roped up, and Passey bridged the bergschrund one couloir looker’s right of the line, then belayed me up to him. We transitioned, then Passey began to climb a steep, striking rock fin that served as our ladder into the line. I followed, and from the top of the fin, we booted into the gut of the couloir. With the yawning schrund below, the entire couloir was a no-fall zone. The pitch was steep—as steep or steeper than anything I’ve ever climbed—with an discernibly perilous terrain feature below. We’d have to edge onto the fin to exit the way we’d come, or else risk falling into the bergschrund. The only other option—hucking the twenty-foot schrund—was a non-starter. The descent, however, didn’t make me nervous—the climb did.

To be clear, I’m a competent splitboarder. I’ve been snowboarding for two decades and splitboarding for one and I feel comfortable riding steep terrain. I’m not, on the other hand, much of an alpinist, and integrating ropes and ice tools into my riding is still somewhat new to me. Looking down the 50+ degree couloir at what my anxious brain judged a body-swallowing schrund and back-breaking cliffs below induced the regrettably phrased but accurate sensation of “puckering.” Gripped, I breathed deep and did my best to hold it together—that is, until we neared the top, where Passey was, in his own words, “wallowing nipple-deep in sugar.”

I couldn’t get a trustworthy foothold in the sugary snow, and per my request, we transitioned there, rather than shuffling through the unsupportable snow towards the top of the line. Once I strapped in, my nervousness evaporated. Passey dropped, hop-turning down the steep snow, managing his sluff like a pro, and coming to a stop on top of the fin. I followed, ice axe and whippet in hand, and from the first turn I was entranced. The snow was smooth, lightly wind-packed powder, ideal for steep skiing. My mind—which raced on the climb—was blank. I was no longer thinking about what I needed to do—I was simply doing it.

I reached Passey, who then dropped down the fin, which was possibly the steepest section of the line. He then skirted the small bridge across the bergschrund, made a few turns, and came to a stop. I followed suit. Having watched countless ski and snowboard movies where jaw-dropping lines end in a fast-paced ollie over a bergschrund, the moment was one I’ll savor for years—or at least until my next trip to Alaska.

We linked back up with the rest of our crew. “How was that skiing?” they asked, whistling.

“The skiing was simple,” I admitted. “It was the climb that scared the shit out of me.”

We returned to camp for lunch and a quick siesta before an afternoon tour, where I experienced a mix of emotions. I was elated, having tackled the best line of the trip, if not my season. I was relieved to have made it down safely. But I was also embarrassed that I’d let my nerves get the best of me. Could I have floundered up that last section and pushed to the top? Maybe. Probably. Sifting through the disappointment, I also found determination—to come back to Alaska, to continue to push myself in steep terrain, to ride more exhilarating lines like this one, with technical entrances and dicey exits. This, I told myself, was a huge learning experience.

I’ve had the pleasure of riding with a few guides over the years, and quite frankly, many of them wouldn’t have indulged my request to step into that steeper couloir. The exit was hairy, the entrance technical. But like he did with the Aussie in that first north-facing shot, Passey thought me capable, and encouraged my progression in the mountains. He lead with confidence and composure, and the resulting adventure proved both thrilling and formative. I was served a slice of humble pie by the Alaska Range, and, to be honest, I’m eager for another helping. I look forward to returning to the Pika, but more than that, I look forward to spending more time on the skintrack and bootpack with Passey. Doing so won’t simply lead to more fun days in the mountains—it will also lead to my growth as a splitboarder and mountaineer. And that, after all, is why I signed up to ride in Alaska in the first place.  

The Pika, I came to realize, was the perfect place to get a taste of Alaska. Whether you are new to steep skiing, or you consider yourself an expert, there’s terrain that’s suited to your skill level. There are mellow powder fields, steep, technical couloirs, and everything in between. But the terrain is only part of the equation that made my first trip to the Pika such a successful one.

Drew

Drew

A mountain-loving, powder-chasing, ink-slinging freelance journalist and copywriter.

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