Beyond the expected: This MSP film crew experiences the fickle side of skiing the biggest mountains in North America

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Beyond the expected: This MSP film crew experiences the fickle side of skiing the biggest mountains in North America

WORDS — The Athletes
PHOTOS — Jay Dash


McKenna Peterson

In Alaska, you never know what you are going to get—it’s either hero or zero, with little in-between. Heading into these “ski industry proving grounds” with Matchstick Production’s all star film crew and a handful of my favorite ski partners had the recipe for success, but that success relies so much on the conditions. It was Lucas Wachs’ first ski trip to AK, his bright eyes and unfeathered optimism contagious. Sammo Cohen, Michelle Parker and myself kept our glasses half-full, quite literally, while we settled into a routine of patience. 

One way or another, we were going to make this trip work. Our crew of ten just needed Mother Nature and Lady Luck to partner up and lend us a hand. The plan was to set up basecamp in the remote Tordrillo Mountains, assess the snowpack and fill a ski movie segment with steep spines, soft pillows and rowdy couloirs. We had the supplies to comfortably live on a glacier for two-to-three weeks—more than enough days to sniff out the goods. Time and patience would be the gateway to skiing the best runs of our lives… we all knew it. But uncertainly plagued our plans.

4.13.2021 / Anchorage, AK

Seven down days in an Anchorage hotel isn’t the best way to begin a film trip. We spent day one  scouting zones and choosing a location from the air. From above, the skiing looked dismal. Conditions were, to put it lightly, wind ravaged, thin and there were holes (crevasses) everywhere. Bummer. We chose a campsite where the snow looked less f*cked in terrain that matched what we wanted to do. Great! Let’s go! Nope… the weather came in strong and here we are… day seven of playing CATAN…

4.18.2021 / Basecamp, Tordrillos

FINALLY flew onto the glacier today. That was a tangled mess of logistics—no matter—we made it! Camp is set up and will be a dialed machine within a day or two. This place is gorgeous, surrounded by faces and spines and ice and couloirs… the COULOIRS! WOW. Our only issue is that the snow looks like a coral reef, dust covered chocolate chips and war trenches (depending on the aspect). Sweet. There has to be soft snow somewhere, right? I’ll find it. Sammo already has his sights set on some seemingly un-skiable super gnar, I can hear Michelle cracking jokes outside my tent and Lucas is in good spirits. Absolutely stoked to be out here. We’re all stoked to be here—this place is incredible. Even if we don’t find epic skiing (we probably will), at least we are guaranteed some entertainment and a damn good time. The hunt begins tomorrow.

Lucas Wachs 

4.5.21 / Bend, OR

Gearing up for my first trip to Alaska I wanted to keep my expectations open as I’ve heard many stories of down days and getting skunked—which all turned out to be true. From the start there was a sense of urgency. Even before I left my house, I mounted a pair of skis in my garage at midnight before flying out early the next morning. 

4.18.21 / Basecamp, Tordrillos

Once in Alaska, things slowed down and we spent seven days bumming around in Anchorage. Finally, we got out into the field thanks to Talkeetna Air and the rest of our savvy crew.

Upon landing at our desired location we were relieved, but also nervous. Simply put, the snow was in poor shape: A thick, breakable crust with two feet of pow underneath. There were so many stout lines that looked incredible—but when you got up close it was a different story. It was a tough situation to travel all that way and just to admire some of the best lines in the zone from afar, but we were committed to making the most of it.

These were the biggest mountains I had ever seen. It threw me for a loop, just the sheer scale of everything. On our first day of skiing, we booted up a couloir that we were going to use for access to other lines, and as our warm-up ski. Unsurprisingly, it turned out to be much bigger and steeper than we expected. This was a catalyst for doubts to creep into my head, questioning everything. The couloir had a tight choke that was a little wider than a ski length wide and the rest was a blue ice runnel; good for climbing with crampons and axes but absolutely terrifying to think about skiing down. 

Thankfully, later that day, we found a more accessible (and skiable) run down with the help of radio communication from a guide down at camp. We dubbed it the “Arctic Oven,” and it offered the best snow we found on the trip. Over-and-over, I felt the same way: Getting a little puckered on the climb up but in the end finding decent skiable snow to ride on. We were really working it, and it felt good to be able to find proper snow in otherwise less-than-perfect conditions. 

Finally, on day three and four, I started to loosen up. It was tough for me to ski with full confidence given the conditions, but we were getting shots and making the segment come to life. Forgetting about the snow conditions, the weather on the glacier was spectacular. We’d ride in the morning, hang out around camp midday and then ski again in the evening. By day five I found a natural feature, set up a booter and ended up sessioning it the next day; it was such a fun jump with a long in-run that included an ice-bulge drop, almost as fun as the jump itself. This was the confidence booster I needed but it came just as the trip was coming to an end—leaving me wanting more. On the way home from Alaska, I felt a newfound appreciation for skiing when the conditions are good, on those five-star dream days. With this trip under my belt, I’m deeply inspired to return and accomplish some big line alpine dreams. 

Sammo Cohen        

In March 2019, I went down, hard, falling nearly 1,000-vertical-feet while skiing for a personal film project in Haines. The fall didn’t only rip my knee apart, end my season and lead me to surgery: It was the first time that I began to consider a different path in life. The only thing that kept me going, that kept me training, was the idea of getting back on the horse. Two years later, on this trip with the Matchstick crew, I made it onto the glacier, a dream and goal of mine from the first time I saw Seth Morrison sending massive backflips in “Ski Movie 2.”  

I scouted the Triumvirate Glacier—what ended up being our home base during the trip—on a recon flight, and I believed it to be the perfect spot to make some ski movie magic. Unbelievable, jaw-dropping terrain that could only twist and boggle your mind until you simply had to go skiing. The only thing that was missing was quality snow; a record-breaking wind event and cold snap came through the mountains just days before we arrived.  

I found my routine early in the trip. At 6:00 AM each morning I would get up and start coffee for the team. The few minutes I had to myself before everyone was up and rolling gave me time to reflect and think about what I wanted to accomplish that day. The sun kissed the heavily glaciated face in the background of our newfound home. I would sit, drink my coffee and analyze the terrain as it slowly gained sunlight. One feature, in particular, kept jumping out at me, staring back at me as I ogled at it, the snow barely sticking to this near-vertical tongue of ice extending out of the hanging seracs. I had found my line. Now the research began. 

I spent most of the trip studying aspects and skiing as many different lines as I could to prep for this singular line. Finally, the morning came where I told myself I would go and test the waters on this incredible feature. As I climbed up the 50-degree couloir to access the backside of the glacier, I visualized skiing down the glaciated ramp. A while later, I took off my crampons, ripped my skins and prepped to drop. Chock-full of blind rollovers, the line would be difficult to navigate from above. Although the snow was far from perfect, I felt ready to ride and the line went as well as it could have: I made it out safely. As I skied away from the hanging ice I looked back and was overwhelmed with more feeling than I’d felt since blowing my knee, this overwhelming feeling strange and foreign to me. My eyes started to swell with tears as photographer, Jay Dash, ran over and nearly tackled me to the ground. I couldn’t speak without choking up. I had exited the greyness that had taken over my life and reentered into the colorful world around me.  

For months I wondered what it was exactly that brought me to such a vulnerable state after skiing a single line. I’ve skied so many lines that felt amazing in the moment yet none of which brought me to a state so vulnerable and emotional. Looking back, I think that my injury and the hard work it took mentally and physically to come back to skiing, along with a lifetime of work to get to this point in my career, was what gave this line more depth than the rest. I had put in the time, the work, tried my very best and, at last, everything came together. In that moment I felt the pure love I’ve always had for skiing and it all seemed to come out at once.

4.26.2021 / ANchorage, AK > SEATTLE, WA

High highs and low lows… as expected. As I’ve experienced in all of my ski trips to Alaska. It’s hard, exhausting, rewarding; the emotions run deep. During these past few weeks, I’ve had moments where I felt on top of the world, confident, nothing could touch me… I could do anything. And I experienced days where I was so scared I couldn’t control my shaking or my breath. Am I satisfied? Yes and no. Is it even possible to walk away from a trip to Alaska feeling satisfied? She’s fickle and enticing… powerful yet submissive. There is always more. I’m completely captivated. An addiction. Until next year…

Michelle Parker

The plane landed with a bump on the snowy runway and slowed to a stop as gravity pulled downhill. Our first step onto the glacier confirmed what I had been thinking: After 170 mph winds and a massive snowstorm ripped through the range, significant warming and a few days of settlement made it so the snow was an upside down layer cake—a classic Alaskan spring time shit storm. 

On day one, my journal reads, “I’m going to change my attitude right now!” Proof that I was, at one point, saddened by the conditions. But, if skiing has taught me anything, it’s to let go of any expectations—so I threw those back in the airplane as it flew off. We built camp, which consisted of an outdoor, single-person sauna, our guide, Beau and his summertime tent (thankfully, we didn’t get any precipitation) and our kitchen filled with two weeks worth of food and far too many IPAs. 

Over the course of the next five days, we flailed about in the mountains trying to ski in a manner that would actually make the movie; easier said-than-done since the conditions weren’t lining up. But we gave our very best effort. While the skiing was hit-and-miss, what I found to be far more entertaining were the little things that made our crew laugh along the way… 

4.22.21 – Basecamp, Tordrillos

Yesterday was a good day: I rode a spine that had a fruitful north-facing edge. Everyone got shots and we took a midday break before another evening session. We hiked to a saddle above camp to lay eyes on the Wizard. It’s hard for me to imagine riding these really big lines in these less than ideal conditions, but there’s always a part of me that wonders. Yesterday was everything I love in the mountains. See list below:

— New friends that just became good friends—the
mountains have a way of doing that.

— Ridgeline scrambling/traverse to get to my
spine with deep pow.

— Getting shots—that always feels good.

— Watching your friends succeed—Sammo skied
a beautiful and steep line.

— Belly laughter and lots of goofing around.

— A whole slew of new mountain partners.

I got a real kick when someone put a candy bar that looked like poop in front of the toilet area and all six of us adults poked it with a stick for four hours, trying to decide if it was real or not. Then, there were the moments when we stayed up late into the night, the sky illuminated by the Northern Lights. And when we teased photographer Jay Dash that our iPhones took better long-exposures than his fancy new camera. (They don’t.) We drank wine in an ice cave, got spooked on steep, exposed climbs, skied a couple of pow turns and, most importantly, came together as friends. While the boys enjoyed the single-person sauna and sat in each other’s sweat everyday, McKenna and I created that special kind of bond in the mountains that you always hope to find. As it does every time, Alaska once again left something to be desired.

This story originally appeared in FREESKIER Volume 25, Issue 02.
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