After such an incredible ski trip to Alaska last spring, I knew I had to return for round two. Originally, I planned on a similar trip, targeting that late March / early April timeframe, gunning for shaded powder, good stability, and big lines. But then Kelly’s friend Bri invited us to go up to Anchorage, her hometown, for the Tour of Anchorage 50k race in early March. I agreed to move my trip to go along with this plan.
I arrived in Anchorage to a spectacular three straight sunny days, something they had not experienced all winter. The snowpack, however, was a bit different than last time. Turnagain Pass had lingering weak layers, and high winds had hit most of the areas around town. Brant was super busy with work and classes and did not really have full days to take off. I knew this trip would be different going in, so I had to temper my expectations. I find that if you just try to recreate some perfect trip of the past, you will inevitably be disappointed. I knew this trip might have less epic skiing, but I had a sense it would be fulfilling in a different way.
Our only real “full” day of skiing was Pyramid Peak over Turnagain Arm. While Turnagain Pass is a famous backcountry skiing destination, Pyramid Peak is rather obscure, guarded by low elevation forests and a starting elevation of 200 feet above sea level. I suggested it because it jumped out to me as a low angle option with great views of the water when browsing Caltopo. Because I do so much of my planning from maps instead of guidebooks or word of mouth, I naturally go to places off the beaten path, places that even locals overlook. Pyramid Peak was a wonderful day, and the views of Turnagain Arm were stunning.
Since Brant had less time to ski with me, I suggested spending some time in the Front Range. Last year, I had gawked at the Front Range, which towers above Anchorage, but not skied anything due to a bad snowpack. This time around, the snowpack was relatively “fat”, with no major weak layer concerns. We went out with some friends to ski Wolverine Peak and I got to learn what a “fat” Front Range snowpack means: if you are careful, you can finish the tour without a core shot. I actually got no core shots all trip, which is a small miracle.
That evening, we were about to go to sleep when one of Brant’s friends texted us, telling us to go outside immediately! The Northern Lights were absolutely going off! Even in Brant’s neighborhood with bright streetlights, we watched greens and purples dance through the sky, from one horizon to the other. Brant said it was the best aurora in Anchorage he has ever seen! Then we tried to drive up to Glen Alps to get away from more of the city light, but it turns out the rest of Anchorage had the same idea. We bailed in the traffic and instead went to Potter Marsh, but by that time the aurora had died down.
Since I still wanted to get some mid week skiing in, I text Ben about his availability. Ben is the humblest crusher you will ever meet. I met him on Rainier last year and this fall he moved back to Alaska. He was stoked to ski and suggested we do some sort of Peak Three Traverse at golden hour. I had heard all about Peak Three in the Front Range: the parties, the dogs, the beer, the 10pm corn laps in spring. It was the centerpiece of the Anchorage pre and post work ski culture, so I wanted to experience it. We met up on the third straight bluebird day and managed to tag all three peaks, skiing icy moguls as the entire sky lit up in alpenglow around us, from the Aleutian chain to Denali to the giant bodies of water before us. It was so incredibly beautiful and wondrous. I could only imagine the joy when the snow is actually good, if that is even possible in the Front Range…
We got some fresh snow midweek so I just skated for a few days before doing an afternoon tour in Arctic Valley with Ben. Despite fresh snow, the skiing was not much improved, but Ben’s backflip attempts and successful 360 on skimo skis and boots was definitely the highlight. Kelly and Bri arrived that evening so I went to stay with them.
Bri grew up in Anchorage and still has many childhood friends there. So naturally she had a packed schedule, trying to see family and friends. Kelly and I were just along for the ride. We skated from her door to a bakery and back, the Alaskan way. We went outdoor ice skating on a lake, participating in the “Great Alaskan Margarita Mile”: 6 laps, one Margarita shot per lap, plus one Tequila shot on the last lap. I got last, not because of the drinking, but because it was my first time ice skating in I-don’t-remember-how-long. Her friends were always so welcoming to us. Many of them have had kids in the last few years, so there were often half a dozen little babies waddling around in poofy clothing. It was adorable.
On the second Saturday, we watched the ceremonial start to the Iditarod race. Bri’s friends had an entire tailgate setup, with a grill, fire pit, and plenty of tasty food to keep warm in the single digit temperatures. With a few hour window in the afternoon, Brant and I snuck out to the Seward Highway to climb some roadside ice. The sun was out brilliantly, and we climbed with great views of Turnagain Arm. The approach was about one minute and the top had a bolted anchor. If this was Seattle, something like this would be mobbed on a nice weekend. I have found myself saying that about just about everything in Alaska. Abundance is not just an Alaskan mindset, but a reality.
Without a car ourselves, some of the logistics were stressful to figure out for me and Kelly. Getting our skis waxed was one of them. But Brant was able to bring us along to a friend’s house in the evening for a wax party. We expected just a quick wax job, but instead we walked into a shop with three waxing setups and some legitimate wax technicians. We waited for a few hours while two high schoolers, Miles and Oliver, waxed our skis perfectly, putting on multiple layers of high quality wax, following the specific instructions of Galen, a world class wax technician. These were teenagers who lived and breathed Nordic skiing. Their dad invited us in and chatted at length with us about skiing, Alaska, and whatever else. Alaskans have such intense pride about their home, like few other places I have visited. I love these spontaneous experiences and I am grateful for the hospitality we enjoyed from so many Alaskans on this trip.
With our skis waxed, it was finally time for race day. Bri and her husband Rich dropped us off at the start line and wished us luck. Ben departed in the heat before us and Brant and his housemate Colin were in our heat. From the start line, I could tell that we were going to be in the back of the pack. No one just casually does the Tour of Anchorage 50k. Almost everyone has speed suits, and certainly no one is rocking combi boots like me.
The race was quite enjoyable, with beautiful weather and views. Kelly had such a great time (until the very end) and we stuck together the whole way. The race was very well organized, with tasty aid stations and fun vibes. It is so cool how the race is truly a tour of Anchorage, yet you never have to cross a road with all the groomed tunnels and bridges to connect the nordic trails. From the finish line, Brant drove us over to the airport, where we met Bri and Rich with the rest of our stuff. It was a tight schedule, but we pulled it off!
On this trip, I got the locals’ experience. My trip last year was a highlight tour, a whirlwind of incredible skiing and incredible places. But this time around, I really got to know the city better, meet the community, and experience the culture. I checked out the Peak Three post-work scene. I saw the sled dogs from the Iditarod. I skied one way or another all ten days I was there. I saw the Northern Lights. And I met so many awesome people. Some trips are about places. Some trips are about people. But the best trips are about people in their places.
Special thanks to Brant and Colin for letting me crash, Bri for inviting us, Bri’s family and friends for welcoming us in with open arms, and Oliver and Miles for the professional wax job! Until next time, AK!