Chapter Five: hanging glacier
I groaned to life after another night sleep; incredibly sore. The sun was shining but the shadow of the tent held the cold of night. We made quick work of our well rehearsed morning routine and before we knew it, we were standing on our skis. I looked at Drew and shook my head, “I don’t know what I’m going to do tomorrow when I wake up and I don’t get to go ski.”
He smiled as he multitasked getting his float pack together,
“It certainly complicates things doesn’t it?”
It was a simple sentence but it echoed in my mind for the next eight months.
The day was warm and the sun powerful. Still creaky, it took me 500 vertical feet to find my legs. The morning held a few beautiful laps complete with a squad party wave. A highly technical maneuver where everyone skis a pitch at the same time, while hooting and hollering about their love of skiing, in motion and in unison.
From the bottom of the party wave, the group split up. Half of us set out for a local summit affectionately named Birthday Peak. One year, Paul gave a bush pilot’s version of a birthday present and dropped Drew and Steph on a broad shoulder to ski this peak. They skied top-to-bottom navigating crevasses the size of an apartment complex. As with Gulo Col, you won’t find the name on any map, but the name stuck. The rest of the group stayed north.
We set our sights on a beautiful blue hanging glacier.
Everyone found a proper pace to ensure we had enough legs to ski the pitch after the climb. Temps rose and sweat dripped in my eyes. My climbing skins began to accumulate snow. I tried to ignore it and thought maybe if I stomped around, the sun would stop warming the top 6 inches of snow. I hoped the problem would work itself out but my right ski became heavier with every step. I started losing ground and let everyone pass me. Bit by bit, the group distanced themselves from my unbalanced clomping.
Being in a truly remote land takes some getting used to. Being in a truly remote land while alone, takes much more.
Panic often hides just beneath the surface.
I stopped and looked around. Massive crevasses lie on either side of me. I was hundreds of meters behind the group and thousands of miles from home. But, in reality, I was fine. The sun was out and the group wasn’t actually that far away. I had snacks on my back and cold beer waiting at camp. A camp I could easily navigate back to if I needed to. Not to mention, there was a skin track for me to follow when I figured out my shit.
Nothing is fucked.
I channeled John Goodman and Jeff Bridges. Nothing was fucked here. I took a knee and grabbed some water, pulled a snack from my pocket and popped off my right ski. Feeling better, I swung my pack around and grabbed the worn stump of skin wax from the top pouch. I clumsily rubbed it on my aging skin and dropped my ski back to the snow. As my toe snapped back in, I laughed. Nothing is fucked. Grinning my way up the skin track I whispered to myself, “We belong out here.”
After picking our way up the glacier, we moved out to a steep transition point to avoid stopping under quintessential Wrangell cornices. We converted to ski mode and slid around the ridge for our first view of our line. Above us, an ice bulge the size of a three-story home and below us a picturesque run framed by two natural features. Skiers right was a towering rock buttress and skiers left was a iridescent blue glacier cascading from another rock band. Lit by the afternoon sun, it hovered glimmering blue as if a waterfall stopped in time.
“Yeah, it’s pretty good. Just-ahh-just watch your sluff.”
If the radio tells you to watch your sluff, you know damn well you’re going to be sluffed out. The first turns were steep enough for jump turns while sluffy enough to make you dizzy. You control the chaos with focused turns: hop, hold, sluff, hop. Repeat.
Sluff gets in your head. You spot your next turn and everything is spinning and sliding, any sense of speed or space is lost. It feels as if you are trapped inside an hourglass.
As you descend, you feel like an insignificant grain of sand falling Rhythmically down, keeping someone else's time.
The steepness gave way as we hurled past the glowing ice.
The pitch eased and I let my speed increase. Ripping wide, recycled powder turns, I felt myself cross a metaphysical threshold. I had become gravity’s peer. No longer a loyal subject, we worked together. My skis ripped the pristine snow curtain and for a moment, I swear on my life, I was flying.
// Hanging Glacier.
Chapter Six: The Fire
“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.’” - Kurt Vonnegut
The morning came to head back. Back to loved ones, back to showers and back to the Thai cart which waited on the drive to Anchorage.