As the sun rises higher in the sky and the snow begins to melt deep within the valleys, the urge to get higher into the mountains and tackle the big lines that you’ve been training for all winter begins to develop in your mind. These thought patterns lead you to consider making the northern pilgrimage to Alaska. I have a lifetime of spring riding options in southern British Columbia but the wonder of what lies in Alaska has been in the back of my mind for over a decade. After staring at countless AK lines in snowboard video parts over the years, I’ve been hypnotized like many others. The dream of snowboarding in Alaska has been seeded in me for quite a long time.
The spring of 2017 in Haines was an interesting one. The snowpack was low and the riding options were limited. Chris Logan, Kevin Girourard, and I headed to Haines after a trip in the Yukon. As we were about to leave Whitehorse my friend Josh Klippert contacted me and asked, “Do you guys have room for one more?” “Totally!” I replied. He responds with, “Justin Hostynek, the filmer and owner of Absinthe Films, needs a ride to Haines.”
After a quick detour we were back en route to AK with Justin. Not only were we finally heading to Alaska but we also got to share the journey with a legend. It was surreal hearing his 20 plus years of snowboard filmmaking history and the stories of the legends that he worked with - the same guys that were in the videos and magazines that got me stoked on snowboarding when I was younger. It was surreal that we were able to give Justin a ride so he could get back to his crew so he could continue to stack some more classic footage.
We arrived at a yurt just outside of Haines, AK where the Absinthe crew was staying while they filmed. Once the truck turned off, Logan and I both looked at each other, jumped out of the truck, and went to grab Justin’s gear to bring it inside. Logan was first and Nicolas Muller was there to greet him. He had the softest handshake and a very calming aura. After meeting everyone and being stoked through the roof, it was time to part ways and to start to plan our trip. We had an idea of where we wanted to go and Justin helped us figure out where we should set up base camp.
We got to Haines and headed to the Fogcutter, a local brewery, and met up with Zak Mills and Lindsay Dolan. They were joining us for the trip. I’ve chatted with them over the years on the Internet, but this was my first time meeting up with them in person. We all agreed on the area we wanted to camp. Now it was time to gear up, pack, and organize. We had a few days for the weather to clear before departing, so we had a good day or two to organize our gear and food. Zach Clanton and the Almo film crew were organizing their gear for their objective “Storm Troopers.” We were able to scope Zach’s photos of the zone we were flying into. Zach had spent the last 5 or 6 years living in AK and figuring out how to get big missions done. He has spent countless hours of flight time with Drake, the bush pilot legend that would take us to our zone. He’s a good man to know and a good friend!
The final step was to organize everything with Drake and create a plan. Drake was happy with our plan as he had flown and landed in our zone before. He knew of a good place for us to set up camp for 2 weeks. We got bumped up to fly right after Zach’s crew was flown into their camp.
The excitement was unnerving during the morning of the fly out. It is tough mentally, you need to be prepared and know that you will have everything for your time out on the glacier. It happens in a flash of an eye, the plane's loaded, you jump in your seat, fumble with your seat belt, grab your head set, and then you're off. You enter the unknown, as you take off into the sky. Looking at terrain that you’ve dreamt of for years and rocking out to Led Zeppelin through the headsets as Drake points out aesthetic lines.
We landed and reversed the process, unloading the plane and then watching our connection to the outside world disappear. It takes a day or two to get yourselves sorted before you start bagging lines. It’s good to set up a solid base camp foundation. We setup our personal tents, group tent, group storage, and bathroom. As the weeks went on we added or changed the camp setup as we began to settle in. With the 5 of us, we had 4 tents, a group/kitchen setup, and we dug a snow shelter for storage. The snow shelter also served as an emergency shelter in case a storm came through and our tents got flattened.
Over the first couple days we worked the terrain close to our camp. We named the nearby zone Wolf Face. It was our intro into spine riding and climbing vertical walls with Verts on our feet. We later found out that this spine wall was named “Goose” by Justin, it was named after his dog. It received the best late afternoon sun and it became our evening shred spot before dinner. The sun stayed out late in April, setting around 8 pm. My first line will be forever cemented in my mind. Standing on a steep face where you can see the bottom, but the run just rolls over, is an intense feeling. I remember taking in deep breaths, taking on a meditative state, staring at and thanking the setting sun. I dropped into a double spine line, slashing one spine after the other. As I went to ride over the second spine I made a slight miscalculation and my slough caught up to me and it pushed on my tail. I felt the force of the loose snow trying to peel me off the mountain. I got up and over the spine and raced off to the flats. Zak and I met back up at the bottom and we immediately went for a second lap before the sun had fully set.
We were 50 km outside of Haines, but we weren’t alone on this glacier. We were sharing the same zone with a film crew that couldn’t quite decide on where they wanted to go. They asked us before we flew off if it was cool to be in the same zone as them. As humble Canadians, we shrugged and said sure. At first we thought there would be plenty of terrain for everyone, then we realized we were all looking at the same thing…The Brothel. It was the main course, it is what we came to Alaska to ride. Zak Mills having spent a few years riding in AK felt we were pretty bold to aim our sights on that line. It was a bit ambitious, but we were hungry. Not only did we have to figure out the complex entrance, exit, and snow conditions, but we had competition as well.
One morning we were in the cook tent and the vibe was a bit unusual. Lindsay wasn’t around—she was moving back and forth from her tent to the storage area. Then she appeared, “Hey, Zak any reply from Drake?” Zak checked his sat-messenger and said, “He’ll be flying out in the afternoon.” We looked at each other, wait a minute, is Lindsay leaving? We were only a week in and we had planned to stay for two weeks. Did we really smell that bad?
We puttered around camp until Drake arrived. While saying goodbye to Lindsay, we began to chat with Drake. “How come no one has ridden the Brothel?” he asked. “Well, we have scouted the entrance and exit…” we replied back. Drake looked puzzled, “You guys haven’t even belayed into it yet?” A light bulb flicked on. Drake and Lindsay flew off towards Haines and we geared up.
There’s a deep history behind this beautiful spine wall. It sits outside of Haines on the border of the Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park. As far as I know, the only person who had ridden it was Jeremy Jones back in the cowboy days of Haines heli-skiing. It has since been closed to mechanized access. We’d be the first approaching by foot. The Brothel looked easy to get into, yet hard to get out of. The out-run was littered with crevasses and seracs. We left camp around 3 pm to scout the line from the top. After reaching a col beyond the glacier, we could see an ascent route. First, we boot packed a steep pitch around a cliff band to our first drop in point. One by one the four of us rode chalky snow around crevasses, then regrouped. Then we roped up and skinned through more crevasses to the bottom of a couloir on the backside of the line. As we entered the couloir, Logan, who was taking up the rear, fell through a bergschrund. Although frightening, we pulled him out unscathed and continued up the couloir. The snow was crusty—not ideal for a descent. As we climbed the couloir, Drake buzzed us with Victor De Le Rue and friends in the plane. They were scouting out our intended line. Apparently it was a popular objective this year. Topping out on the ridge, the snow looked great on the spines. We hiked further up the ridge. The sun was beginning to set.
We’d been traveling for four hours to get to this point. It felt right to do it then and there. We quickly switched our gear over and strapped in. Zak dropped first and came into view at bottom of the line after a few minutes, we heard him shout out in pleasure. I went third and felt that great rush of euphoria—the culmination of a week’s effort, the cold, the uncertainty and the anxiety. By the time all four of us made it down safely, it was growing dark. The couloir that we thought we could climb out for direct access to camp turned out to have another ridge behind it. We had to ride further down the glacier. We had made an error in our judgement and we were now taking a huge risk.
Getting home is the less glamorous part of riding a trophy line by foot. We first began by dropping an ice bulge one by one, each of us wiping out on the firm, bumpy ice. Then we had to navigate a large serac. We put on our headlamps and dove in, threading through crevasses in the dark, finally gaining our intended ridge. By the time we reached our old tracks that led back to camp, the aurora borealis danced faintly on the horizon. With strong route finding and a bit of luck, we’d made it through the glacier unscathed.
A few days later, we packed up camp and flew back to civilization. A north wind had come in and destroyed all northerly aspects so it was time to go.
We finished off the trip chatting with Drake in the hanger and we talked about future AK endeavors. As he was fueling us with dream lines to think about, he looked at us and asked. “You’re my customers right?” We looked at him, “Of course!” we said. “Well I know of a zone… maybe you guys are the ones to tick it off?”