This trip report is not finished, work in progress
Luke Smith, Gabe Kelley, Ryan Kruger, James Binkley, Chad Klein, and Kyle Christenson
BackgroundSometime in 2009 we came up with the idea to go to Svalbard for an exploratory ski mountaineering trip. Svalbard is an arctic Norwegian archipelago. There is an airport on the island of Spitsbergen in the town Longyearbyen at 79 degrees north (biggest town in Svalbard, and most northern civilization in the world).
The mountains north east of Longyearbyen have never been skied before. Our Plan was to spend 4 weeks skiing first descents in a semi mild winter where the sun never sets (at 79 degrees north the sun never sets in late April).
We planned the trip a year in advance and were pumped. I flew the first leg of my flight from Juneau Alaska to Seattle Washington on April 16th 2009 only to learn that a volcano in Iceland by the name of Eyjafjallajökull exploded and has shut down ALL AIR TRAFFIC IN EUROPE! Wow. While James, Luke, and I (all fellow Alaskan team mates also stuck in Seattle) had a few days in Seattle together. Our trip was going to get pushed back at least two weeks maybe more depending on the volcanic action. We needed to try to piece together a new plan.
3 days later we had come up with a new idea. Everyone would fly to Juneau (my hometown) take a ferry to Haines, then take a ski plane to the Grand Plateau Glacier just north of Mt. Fairweather for three to four weeks. The idea was to explore the mountains for skiing there. A lot had probably already been skied, but there isn't much info on the area for skiing (common route to climb Fairweather). Here is the story of our trip.
Day 1 4/24/2010We all took the ferry yesterday from Juneau to Haines with 200+ pounds of food, 12 gallons of Collmen fuel, back country skiing gear, and winter camping gear. Holy shit that comes out to a lot of stuff!
10:30 AM The first flight takes off with Ryan and James. We had to roshambo for first flight. We made sure they had all the gear necessary to survive if the weather rolled in.
12:30 PM Luke and I got the second flight. The weather is gorgeous and the mountains are jaw dropping. I grew up in the area and have spent a lot of time flying by helicopter around the amazing mountains and ice fields of Juneau which I never thought could be surpassed. I guess that's why all the pro skiers and boarders go to Haines every year. On our way out we fly over Jeramey Jones, Tom Burt, and Ryland Bell who are camped out filming deeper for TGR. We also get to fly over Tomahawk, infamous mountain in the heliskiing world (if you watch ski movies you have seen this mountain). I was both excited and in awe.
When we land on the Grand Plateau Glacier Ryan and James had already set up one of our two Hilleberg Keron 4 GT tents. They had also probed out a safety perimeter. Luke and I get to work on setting up the other tent. It is so hot we had to plug in our mini speakers to the folding solar panel and blast dance music tunes. Best dance floor I have ever had the opportunity to tear apart.
Kyle and Chad come in on the last flight. We spend the rest of the beautiful day setting up camp. We all have varying leaves of experience. This is my first expedition and I feel very good about how we have set up camp. We dug out seating, table space, shelf area. We put up snow walls around our tents. I learned a great lesson, no matter the weather, don't leave shit outside the tent and if you do make sure it is clumped together with everything else, preferable in some sort of pack.
Day 2 4/25Right now I am wearing my helmet and rocking out to some MC Hammer in my sleeping bag (I forgot my ear buds at home but got tune ups for the helmet). It is about 5 PM. A storm started last night when we went to sleep. Just wind no snow. I got out of bed at 11:30 this morning, we all gathered in Kyle, Luke, and Chads tent for breakfast. Turns out the wind blew snow to fill in all the features we dug out of the snow and buried everything we left outside (lots of small stuff). It took us about an hour or two to dig everything out, I think we found everything. We also spent some time digging out the vestibules of our tent so we could stand up and store stuff.
Day 3 4/267:45 AM: "Oh Shit!" I wake to Ryan shouting. The tent has collapsed on James's side of the tent by our feet due to snow wind loading throughout the night (I sleep in between James and Ryan). Turns out we built snow wall too close to our tent. The area between the snow wall and our tent filled with snow, buried the toe of our tent, and broke two tent poles.
No time to eat we have to save our tent. James, Ryan, and I quickly get out of bed, push the half collapsed tent out of our way, grab some shovels, and head out into the storm. We shovel all the snow off the tent, this is no small task. James and Ryan Fix the tent poles with all the replacement parts we have (just enough). I take down the wall we spent hours building and move it further from our tent. This whole process takes about three hours which we started on empty stomachs. Time to go to chow town, the other tent is still asleep. Quick batch of oatmeal and it is time for me to take a solid nap.
11:45 AM: I wake up and lie in bed for 30 minutes. I am restless and board. I need something to do and I kind of need to take a dump. Outside was not inviting with the storm and wind and all, to pop a squat and drop a deuce, the wind would probably blow it miles down glacier. A vision came to mind, igloo shithouse! Never built an igloo before, no better time to start then the present. The idea of an igloo is to stack blocks in a continuous spiraling circle, not stacked circles.
I got about three rows of snow blocks before I was too exhausted to build more.
Day 4 4/279 AM: James peers out the tent from his sleeping bag "Its Blue" he exclaims. "No way" I think, there is still a fair amount of wind. After a stout breakfast we boot up. While getting our skiing gear together we realize that we are missing 1 set of poles, one BD whipit (ski pole with ice pick on handle) and one regular telescoping ski pole. During the half hour search for the missing poles we inadvertently find our toboggans which we didn't know were missing. I wonder what else is buried that we will never find, hopefully nothing important.
11:30 AM: We found the ski poles and are ready to go. The Glacier runs East to West. We decided to take an exploratory trip to the west. There is a mellow incline on the south side of the glacier we go up as we continue the the west where we hope to get a better view. The scenery is amazing, there are big mountains and gnarly ice-falls everywhere.
The slope continues to the west but is a slightly steeper grade and downhill. We skied down it, much longer and steeper then we expected, but still very mellow. Steep and long enough to pick up good speed over a variety of wind packed pow, sticky melt and sastrugi. As we skied down (west aspect) there was a large mountain on our left with an unskiable north aspect.
We will call this mountain The Lure. Continuing down the mellow west aspect we were able to see the west aspect of The Lure, SICK!
The Lure's west side has several awesome couloirs with minimal consequences. We decide to skin up the first section of slope to the top of a rib which is mellow, and north west aspect. Kyle dug a snow pit, said that nothing would fail on a Compression Test (CT). From the top of the rib we have a spectacular view to the SW. The area below us to the SW is a huge flat glacial branch of the Grand Plateau, probably three to five miles wide. The surrounding glaciers and mountains were again unbelievable. Eventually we decided to retrace our tracks back to camp. On the way home Luke, Kyle, and I stopped to ski a cool looking three turn slop on the north face of The Lure. The slope was steep and looked like there was some good wind deposited snow, Kyle wanted a picture. Luke and I modeled for kyle.
Day 5 4/28Not much going on today, moderate storm again. I finished the Igloo thanks to Kyle and Chad. Poopin is great now!
Things I have Learned so far
- Put skins on the bottom of your booties going both directions
- No matter how good the weather is tonight, make sure everything outside is in a pile so if it storms at night you wont lose anything.
- Build Wind walls far enough from tent to account for cornice effect that could bury your tent.
- Put snow ontop of the base of the vestibule on the outside to prevent snow and wind from blowing into the vestibule. Build a bulge inside the vestibule to help prevent build up snow on top of tent material.
- How to build an igloo, ask me about it sometime or go here
- Powdered eggs sound gross, they are not! Also dried hash browns kick ass too. I wish we had brought dehydrated beans.
- Check an inflatable pad before you go on any long expedition, especially if it is brand new and never been used.
- I already know this one but it has been reinforced. Always vent the tent, condensation is a bitch.
- It is good to have to stoves, one that simmers and one that boils fast.
Day 6 4/29The weather looks skiable this morning! James and I get breakfast together and wake the other tent. Everyone seems to want to ski the chutes on the west side of The Lure we scoped out the other day. By the time we skin a mile from camp the weather rolls in and we cant see anything. Abort Mission! We ski the skin track back home. The ride home is weird, there is enough slope to keep moving with an occasional push, the white out is so strong I can only see about 5 feet of skin track ahead of me.
James used the sat phone to call his brother Wade. Wade is our contact man. We call once every two or three days to let him know we are okay. He tells us the storming is forecasted to continue for a few more days. Not much skiing happening.
Day 8 5/1Nothing happened on day 7, except right before we went to bed the ski cleared. We made a plan to wake up at six this morning. I roll over, unzip the vent, then the vestibule, and am pleased to find nothing but blue sky! YES!
I nudge Ryan (the only one with a watch handy in the whole group) "What time is it?"
"5:59" he grumbles
"Hey! Lets go skiing!" I yell at the top of my lungs hoping that the other tent can hear. It takes me no time to grab my water bottle and bowl, and go to the other tent to get breakfast started. I unzip the vestibule of the other tent "Lets go skiing" I said dramatically as I climbing into the now well carved out vestibule and started boiling water for oatmeal.
7:30 and were out. Luke, Kyle, and I are on the first rope team and head NE to The Judys (after James and Ryan's moms).
Judy B to the left and Judy K to the right. The Judys are two awesome couloirs that form a V with a bergshrund beneath the convergence. Below the shrund are two beautiful ice falls with a large powder field in the middle.
When we get to the bottom of the powderfield which runs out onto the flat glacier we learn that the powderfield is both wind hammmered hard pack and very steep. Due to the steep hard conditions we had to boot up most of it and we stayed roped. Ryan, James, and Chad are way behind waiting for us to summit the "powder field".
Over the horizon we find a large debre pile at the bottom of the Judys. Probably just sloughs. I am in the front of my rope team, so I have to cross the bergshrund first. As I approach I am able to gaze into the crack, not very deep or intimidating. Wallowing through the snow I realize I need a better plan to get over this thing. I try to use my whippit, but it wont hold in the soft snow, so I try carving out a foothold by my belly. Despite being a lanky 6'2" it is very difficult to hike my foot way up but I am able to do it (Good luck chad, haha).
Once our rope team gets over the crack we gather up, coil the rope, toss it in a back pack, take a break, then Kyle start booting up the coular. The weather has slowly been moving in all day and at this point I can not see any mountains but the one I am on. By 10:30 we are standing on top of Judy B, and at 11:00 the 2nd team joins us. Snow is variable the whole length of the coular.
I get to ski it first. As I drop in I wonder if this has ever been skied before. The snow has a thin breakable crust with 0-5 inches of soft snow ontop. Gaining any sort of speed would be a death wish so I do several jump turns across the slope then wait for my sluff to pass. There are unpredictable pockets of nice soft snow wort a turn or two. The skiing is hard work, causing an unpleasant amount of sweat. The "powder field" was rock hard and flat light, awesome. We all gathered at the bottom and skied back to camp. The weather is gross so no more skiing today.
*There is a secret about today that someday I may tell.
Day 9 5/2Lots and lots of new snow, I hope we can ski tomorrow.
Day 10 (Western Denial, Eastern Exploration) 5/3The wind is strong this morning but when I look out the tent I am stoked to find blue sky's. We head out West with hopes of The Lure. At the bast of the North face of the Lure we find a West face to dig a pit. Kyle digs and finds CT 12 Q1 at 8 inches and Ct 22 Q1 at 24 inches. Quality of the sheers makes us uneasy so we decide to try exploring to the east of camp, if we go far enough we will be in Canada!
We stop at camp so Luke and James can grab their kites.
As we move East it is interesting to get a new view of the mountains we have been staring at for 10 days from a long distance. The north side of the Grand Plateau has a ton of dope lines and coulars. Unfortunately all these lines are sun affected south aspects and we want north aspects. I will summarize most of the north aspects coming from the south side of the glacier as "glacier gnar". These slops are filled with huge icefalls and big cracks scattered about the few snowy slopes.
Three to four miles East of camp Kyle spots a line on the south side of the glacier.
Luke and James are playing with their kites, Ryan is taking photos, and Chad has had problems with his splitboard binding. Looks like this one is just Kyle and I. We booted up a wind hammered slope scattered with small rock fields. As I set the boot pack I realized that the mellow looking face we decided to ascend was not so mellow after all. Usually slops look steeper when you look across at them then when your on them, but this was opposite.
The whippit felt good in my right hand and my left felt naked with out it. The climb was very exciting and fun now, exciting enough that we both decided to get our helmets out.
When we got above all the rock fields there is a steep boot pack traverse through some relatively softer snow with mild exposure.
We travel one at a time here. The traverse ends above the slope we want to ski. We are about 2/3s of the way up the mountain. Kyle takes a few turns down the best snow we have skied so far. He posts up with his camera and directs me where to ski for a shot hes got lined up. I drop in to discover the snow is fantastic! I toss a turn for the camera and shred down the the glacier. Kyle shows me the picture at the bottom, and now everyone else is interested in taking a second lap with us. Chad stays behind because he is skeptical of his binding.
Luke skied first on the second lap. He took a gnarly fall after two turns and a decent air off a wind lip. He rolled halfway down the mountain. I was 4th to ski and skied the far skiers left side (west). As the slope mellowed out towards the bottom I opened it up and ended up hauling ass through some firm wind chop. This sent me backseat real quick. Next thing I know my heals released and flipped one or two times. Luke and I were both fine. Long skin back to camp, got home at 10 PM.
Day 11 5/4The weather is beautiful this morning. Were up early at 8 AM, and by 10:45 were out. We want to explore more west. Luke and James exit camp via kite. We go about one to two miles west past The Lure where another branch feeds into the Grand Plateau. We had south about four miles across this icefield like glacier being feed by huge glaciers on every side.
The kiters tow Ryan and Chad half way before the wind dies and the kites are rolled up. The sun is so hot the whole glacier feels electric. I hate that Arc'teryx only makes there high end pants in black. Black does not photograph well and is way to hot. I am stripped down to only gore text proshell with all vents open and underwear. Sweat still comes pouring out. This is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.
Its 3 PM and we finally made it across the flat glacier and are standing at the bottom a a mellow glacier with a few gorgeous seracs and crevasses spread throughout. Kyle Chad and I roped up in that order. Ryan stayed back with the camera and the rest of the team. At the top (30 minutes later) we were able to look out to the coast, very far away.
There are also four mountains here that have all sorts of potential, best of all the are all north aspects. There is also and incredible long mellow south aspect facing the the other four peaks. We call the long south aspect the never ending run (have not skied yet) and the four mountains compose the never ending run area.
Its getting late now, 5PM so we head home. We are all home and exhausted by 7PM.
Day 12 (Moving day) 5/59AM - The weather is good this morning, but not quite blue bird. We wake up to a huge breakfast of eggs, hash browns, cheese, and hot sauce wrapped up in a tortilla.
11AM - We start to break down camp and pack it up into sleds.
2PM - Everything is packed into six sleds and five backpacks (my backpack is in my sled). We are headed West to set up camp at the bottom of the mellow glacier we ended at yesterday.
5PM - We are at our new camp, much more scenic then Camp 1, and camp 1 was breathtaking. It is very difficult to perceive a scene of scale here, everything is so big. We spend the rest of the day building an awesome camp, using the lessons we gained from camp 1.
We also managed to build a tunnel connecting the vestibules.
Day 13 5/68:40AM I get out of bed and wake everyone else. "Lets go skiing" I yell at them. With the new camp it takes us forever to get our shit together. We head towards the never ending run area at about noon. We skied down to the base of the four peaks where Kyle and I dug a pit. CT8 Q2 at 12 inches and CT23 Q2 at 3 feet.
All six of us skin up the 4th peak the one furthest to the west. This one is mellow, with no terrain traps, a good test slope. Ryan and Chad stopped short of the summit. The view from the top is again amazing. Kyle shoots Luke, James, and I as we take turns skiing off the summit. Great skiing.
We decide to step it up to something more interesting. I start to skin track under some rocks where we dug the pit earlier. I was able to hug the rocks on the side of the run for a few switchbacks before I was forced to boot pack. Next was a traverse under a rock field and above a bergshrund. There was some nice soft snow on top of boilerplate ice. It was hard to hold an edge so I had to continue the boot pack. This turned out to be an intimidating spot with the bergshrund below us.
At the end of the traverse I am half way up the skiers left side of the slope we want to shred. There is a bergshund staring me in the face. In order to get above it I need Kyle for a belay as I climb around it. Unfortunatly the snow turned to shit about 20 feet about the shrund so we put our skis on and went down from there. The bottom half of the run was fantastic. From there it is back to camp by 8PM, dinner, then bed.
Things I forgot to mention--Chad had been given the name "Red Bear". He has a giant red down jacket that he always wears. Ryan and James ask him questions like "Red Bear, in your coulture, how to people great eachother?" Chad ignores them. This type of shit is non stop.
--We sometimes call Kyle "Osama" because he tried to sneak a gun onto his flight to Juneau. He had the gun in a soft case in his checked bag. When asked "Do you have ammunition or explosives?" Kyle said no, but chose not to mention that there was a gun in the duffel he checked. TSA stopped him at the gate and made him go to Walmart and get a hard case.
--Three times now Chad has slipped on the outside of the tent and kicked a hole into the dug out vestibule. First two times in our tent, 3rd time in his. Red Bear catches alot of shit for this.
--We have a solar panel which charges cameras, Ipods, and some small speakers we brought. It is funny when you go out to pee in a storm in the middle of nowhere surrounded by gnarly mountains and glaciers, and a tent flapping in the wind blasting hip hop beats!
--My sleeping pad holds are for about 45 minutes. I pad the bottom of my bag with all my down clothing. Should have checked the brand new pad before I left.
--I am almost always the first one out of bed. If I don't wake everyone they will sleep till noon. James gets up early but just lies there.
Day 14 5/710:30 AM - We head back to "The never ending run basin". THere are basically 4 mountains in a line that run east to west with the slops mostly north facing. Today we decide to ski a run we have called Luke's Run. It is on the second peak from the east with a West aspect for the first half of the run. We are able to follow the glacier around the south side of the first two peaks to get to the top of "Luke's Run".
I send it first, rock hard ice. The ice was smooth, with just enough give to hold and edge. The run was fun even though the snow sucked. Luke and James followed, the other three decided not to ski it. We all meet up at the top to eat some lunch while we waited for the snow to soften up.
Kyle and I skinned up a glacier to the south for a photo shoot of a very mellow glacier run with some cool peaks in the background. We get back to the others around 4 or 5 PM. Luck and James want to ski "The Toung", a cool steep glacier run on the closest (most eastern) peak in the basin. I join them as we follow the skin track towards Luke's Run. James is in the front of the rope team when he comes up to a crevasse with with nice clean edge, about 6 inches across and no bottom in sight. The next one we have to cross is similar but about 2 feet across. Going over that one was a little scary. When we finally got to the top of "The Toung" the snow was soft, and the skiing was really fun.
Day 15 (Chads Birthday) 5/8Weird weather this morning. There is fog on top of us, and we cant see shit, but it is very warm. It is also Chads birthday today. We all had a hot of whiskey with breakfast. Kyle cooked us a 5 star breakfast. We had breakfast burritos with eggs, hash browns, cheese, sausage, and hot sauce. Topped of the meal with biscuits and a butter/brown sugar glaze, SO GOOD! We lounged around all day. The fog cleared in the evening so everyone went for a photo shoot through some cook looking icefalls but I opted for a nap.
After the photo shoot we had dinner and finished the whiskey. Luke's shovel broke a few days ago and we have way too much fuel so we filled the shovel blade with white gas and had ourselves a fire. One gallon of fuel probably lasted about an hour. We still have 10 of the 12 gallons we brought with us. We danced around the fire, great way to spend a birthday.
Day 16 5/910 AM -- Were up with great weather. I have been wanting to ski a run on the on The Lure that we spotted a long time ago. Kyle wants it also. There are may runs but there is an amazing coular off the south side that looks really fun. The Lure is much larger then any of the peaks in the Never Ending Run Basin. The other four are skeptical of snow stability on a southern run. Kyle and I feel comfortable with no new snow in over a week. It is all ice in the morning and softens up in the afternoon. We just need to be there relatively early. The others head back to the Never Ending Run Basin while Kyle and I head towards the Lure.
Kyle hads up first. I wait for him the clear the fist slope. When I get to the top of the first slope I see Kyle skiing straight up a huge slope with point release debris. This does not seem like the best route to me so I opt for a ridge to the south. I choose poorly. The snow is so firm a snowboarder would need crampons. Kyle was safe, nothing is going to slide until it warms significantly. The other side of the ridge is so soft. The top 5-8 inches sloughs off and I can not hold an edge. I take my skis off and post hole to my knees. I am forced back to the icy side of the ridge. This leaves me a little exposed so I put my helmet on. I have to toe punt each step. With the firm snow, steep slope, and some rocky expose, the climb has an intensity to it. I can not afford to fall, but there is no reason to if I am careful.
Once I finally climb over all the steep, icy, rocky, exposed slope I am able to put the skis back on and skin up to where Kyle is waiting. I reconnect at the top of the mountain at 3:15. We take some pics then go to scout out the coular we have been drooling over for the last week. It looks awesome, Steep and narrow enough to be fun but wide enough to maneuver. The pinch is towards the top and is about 15 feet wide. Most of the coular is 20 to 40 feet wide and about 40-50 degrees. The snow is soft corn. Kyle gets pictures as I drop in. The skiing is amazing. Hands down the best run so far this trip. A long run too. My legs are on fire. At the bottom we are oozing with energy and want to do it again but surely the route up is too soft now. We get back to camp at 5PM, a few hours before the others. Sounds like they have an amazing day as well.
Day 17 5/10We wake up to a beautiful morning, but there is a storm building from the coast. As we get our gear together we watch the wall of clouds get bigger and darker. We hold off on the skiing. James was told on a SAT phone check in that we would probably be stormed on for the next 3 days.
There is alot of drama. James is stressed out because along with the weather forecast he learned that his family's company is having some problems and they need him.
"Alright, time to get this junk show together. Lets ski while we can" I say.
Today is Monday and we plan to fly out Friday or Saturday. This could be out last day of skiing. Kyle is on board with me, we get our stuff together while everyone else mopes around camp. "Okay I am ready, who else is ready?" Kyle asks.
"I am" I reply.
No one else even has there boots on yet. For motivation sake Kyle and I start skinning up the glacier towards the Never Ending Run Basin and tell the other to follow. The other four leave camp 30 minutes after us.
I am extremely frustrated with the lack of motivation. We came here to ski, it is our last week, possibly the last day of skiing, and no one but Kyle want to do anything. The frustration powers me through the skin to the pass at the Never Ending Run Basin. By the time the others show up it is totally socked in. We all ski back to camp but Kyle and I are not giving up yet. The two of us stop at the ice fall on the way home. We are just above camp here. We decide to build a terrain park through the glacier features.
There is a cubish serac that is tilted to the side about 20 degrees. We want to build a ramp up it for a wall ride. We rope up and probe out the area. Almost everywhere is safe to walk. After about two or three hours we have a nice ramp built. Trying to approach the ramp with speed is going to be tricky. We have two ideas. Fist there is a cliff drop off a serac over a crevasse with a bomb drop landing. Looks intimidating but totally possible with good snow. The other way is to sing in around the crevasse and right over the landing from the gap. The crevasse gap is about 12 feet tall and about 6 feet across. I built a little launchpad at the top. Now we have a two feature terrain park though an ice fall! Hell yeah! The weather clears in the evening and I am able to give the wall ride two attempts. It is really hard to hold enough speed, but the feature is fun and actually pretty easy. We go back to camp and 8PM.
Day 20 5/13Day 18 and 19 were down dasy due to weather.
Late start to a mediocre day. at 2 O'clock Kyle and I head up to the terrain park. The ramp into the wall ride has been filled in with new snow and wind deposits. it takes us two hours to clear the snow. By that time the weahter moved in and we cant see anything so we go back to camp.
8 O'Clock and the clods part. There is beautiful light on the terrain park, this is it, this is the shot. Kyle and I race up to the park with a small time window. There is orange light on the wall. I drop in, Damn! I dont have near enough speed. I race back up and step in much higher, only to come in just as slowly. The whole inrun needs to be packed down. We missed the shot, bummer.