Winter life in Haines has been good to me so far; insofar as I have a decent paying job that I can handle, a warm and dry place to throw down in the evenings, and all set in the most beautiful place on Earth. What more could I really want? Well, work consumes most of my time and exhaustion consumes nearly what is left, so there seems little time left for adventuring. Days are Alaskan short, and the weather, at least on my days off, tends to be, well, blizzard like. On this day I awoke, a Sunday morning, to a day unlike most: clear and striking, begging me to grab skiis and poles and tele boots and pack and camera and off into the world I go. Not the world of floor joists and rafters and drywall, but one of magical forest sunken into deep and drifted snow, blanketed in winter, with a parade of peaks jutting from the Coast Range from a world frozen and still. I stop by Mountain Market for a Bolso and a cup of mud to get my self in order, all the while reading a book on the geology of Southeast Alaska to fill the time and engage my mind a bit towards the things that strike me in regard to Alaska’s poignant location in this magnificent world.
Being new to Haines and not having much time as of late to explore and find the good places to go for winter exploration by skii, I decide to embark northward, up the Haines Highway to mile 7 where the trail head for Mt Ripinsky’s 7 Mile Saddle lay. I figure it is worth a shot, since all I aim to accomplish really, is get a good look at the jagged escarpment of the Cathedral Peaks and the mighty and glaciated Mt Emmerich. If I actually got to spin the skiis around for a turn or three, it would be a bonus I reckon. People have spoken of the trail as hard to follow and ridiculously steep, but what the hell, I’ll give it a shot.
I drive north, searching for a place to pull over where I won’t get buried by the occasional snow plow and spy a pullout on the west side of the road. Thinking ahead, I gingerly back into the paking spot in annticipation of having to gun it hard upon a later escape from it’s snowy grip. Hiking up the road with skiis in hand the quarter mile to the trail, I can see immediately that this is indeed one steep mutha.
I strap the skins to the boards and the boards to my feet and off I go, poling through waist deep powder and aiming for thetreeline up ahead. As soon as I enter the trees, it becomes apparent that following the trail will be impossible, as no one has been here for many days it seems. There are no tracks an, once past the innitial BLM sign, no real sign of a trail at all. There is only deep, unconsolodated snow oand steep, endless forest for navigation.
Up I go, switchbacking, side stepping, and struggling at times to gain even a foot of elevation. Twelve inches gained in the endless powder, six inches lost. After an hour of this considerable effort, I look back toward the valley from which I have come, only to understand that I have climbed only a few hundred feet. The reward which I seek however, is nearing. The grand peaks of the Cathedral Group are coming into view, and I guess that another hundred feet up, I will be in their full and complete presence. Up I go, my heart racing from exertion and anticipating the fine view ahead. It has been downright fowl weather these last few weeks and views of the area have been extremely limited. Soon the mountains and the frozen Chilkat River are in view, and as my camera clicks away, I fight back the tears of joy to be once again witness to this right place.
Struggling through the steep, tree lined chutes and tightly forested hillside, it did not occur that skiing out of here might be an issue for me. I am a terrible skier, I must freely admit. I skii about as well as a Brown Bear plays chess. I am what serious skier’s sometimes call a “Survival Skier”, meaning that upon pointing the skiis downhill, I am merely surviving the descent, rather than gracefully carving an artform out of it. There was a time, many years back, that I could possibly say that I had surpassed the survival skier mode, but that was then and this was now; besides, the tree lined escape route was going to be tricky even for an experienced back country snow traveler. After sometime bushwhacking through Devil’s Club and Alder, and more than my share of faceplants in the deep snow, I emerged onto the shoulder of the highway and salvation from the treachery above. A pleasant skii up the frozen and snow covered Chilkat puts me back at my truck in no time.
On the short drive back to town, one of my tire chains loosens and begins to clank against the wheel well of the truck. I decide to pull over to investigate and spot a plowed pullout ahead. As I veer of of the comfort of the packed surface of the road and onto the pullout, my truck, and heart sink deep into the depths of unpacked snow. The pullout was not what it seemed, and now finding myself on this fine and glorious day, beneath the truck snow shovel in hand digging for all I am worth. It seemed appropriate to me now, to quote a fellow that Angela and I had passed on The Denali Highway earlier in the summer who was changing a flat tire on his truck in the mud in an Alaskan downpour. We waved to him and he responded, “Just another day in Alaska!”