Arc'athlete Forrest Coots recently travelled to Alaska for a fifteen-day skiing expedition to the extremely remote Wrangell Mountains. Here is his report:
13.2 million acres of mountains and glaciers, the nation's largest national park (the size of Switzerland), and there are only four of us in the whole range. Wrangell-St. Elias National Park [http://www.nps.gov/wrst/index.htm] is a National Park's Park. Big, wild, and remote. We aren't the top of the food chain here, but only members of it. I've come to the Wrangells with my climbing partner and photographer Jason Thompson, along with filmmakers Will Lascelles and Jase Hancox to film the skiing and climbing on this trip.
Twenty days earlier, we flew in from a dirt airstrip on the banks of the Copper River at the edge of the unknown. But now we're down to two cans of tuna and a block of cheese – and a new storm is threatening our departure. It's getting down to minutes. If the plane can't get us off the glacier before the clouds and storm closes the door, we will be storm-ridden for what later turns out to be five stormy days.
The plan was hatched over a phone call between JT and me months ago. "Where should we go this spring? Alaska, Peru, France?" I asked.
"Alaska" responded JT.
"How about University Peak?" I suggested, and the plan was set into place.
Months of planning, organizing, and six months later, the four of us stare out across the dirt airstrip, surrounded by a mountain of duffle bags, skis, seventeen-days of food, and camera gear. We are anxiously waiting for the guys at Ultima Thule Lodge and a trip into the unknown.
The Claus family operates the lodge as the lone gatekeepers to the range and they hold all the secrets of the Wrangell Mountains. Not only is it hard to get information about the range, it's even harder to get to the remote mountains themselves. Without the Ultima Thule guys, it would be impossible – this is just a lonely dirt strip in the middle of nowhere. The Wrangells are still wild and remote and ready to provide new discoveries. Every peak must be climbed first before it can be skied.
For months, I've daydreamed of climbing and skiing University Peak, but reality doesn't often match our perception. After a recon of University in one of the Ultima Thule's super cub planes, the reality of the peak became clear – it looks more like Mount Doom from a hobbit's point of view. The powder-filled face that I've been dreaming of becomes visible off and on through the clouds as we circle it several times. Its south face looks more like a 7,000-foot alpine climb than a ski descent. The pilot tells us we have better odds in Vegas than skiing that face this year.
Flying back to the lodge, it's time to start thinking about Plan B or even C. Lucky for us, in 13.2 million acres, we have options. Finding a new zone is pretty easy, we just had to look around, and pick a spot on the map. Maybe not to the level of University Peak, but in a park as massive in its scale of ski mountaineering, there's great climbing and skiing in every direction.
Landing on a snowfield, we find ourselves finally on the glacier, surrounded by mountains with big lines in all directions, and even bigger challenges out on the distant horizon. It looked like Plan B would work out and we'd be busy. Over the next fifteen days, we climbed and skied everything in sight. A few of the bigger lines were the icing on the cake.
The gem of the trip was a 3,000-foot, 45-degree face we named Junior College Peak – a smaller version of University. It was a great day spent moving through glaciers and climbing up mountains, and finally skiing a face that we had stared at the entire time from our camp. Although, it might not have been University Peak, it still was a great climb and ski, and at the end of the day, that's all one can ask for: To be out skiing and climbing and living in the mountains with friends. If I know anything, I know that someday, I will be going back to the Wrangells again.
(Photography by Jason Thompson)