The Last Frontier

In this dreamland the kids are alright,

And the sky is blue.

We all got wings,

And know how to fly.

I made it to the moon.

The sun on my face,

My head in the clouds.

Time on my side,

My feet off the ground,

I’m not comin’ down”

Coutts, Taggart, Maida, Mazur, 2013, Dreamland, On Burn Burn, Coalition Music (Records) Inc.

4 am and it’s these lyrics pierce my sleep. Eyes still closed and asleep, I smile like a child. I look at the ceiling and take a deep breath. I know that once I get up from bed, I’ll be in preparation mode, so I lie down, enjoying this moment of fullness. This moment does not last. The excitement is rising, my heart is accelerating, and my thoughts are racing.

I kiss my girlfriend and get up from the bed.

After 2 years of waiting, the departure to the Talkeetna Mountains in Alaska is imminent. I am finally ready and able to do the Bomber Traverse. This 37km-long traverse, which runs through a beautiful section of the Talkeetna mountains, has 3 alpine huts on its way. I call that luxury!

The whole team is impatient to put the keys in the RV and hit the road. Despite the excitement, we take care of not forgetting anything. With 13 hours and nearly 1100km from Whitehorse, it’s not the time to forget something.

As always, the road is breathtaking. Every time I take this road, something happens inside of me. A feeling of lightness, of the unknown, of infinity, of eternity, invades me every time. I imagine this vulnerability is normal when you navigate in the middle of such a wild environment, surrounded by mountains, glaciers, huge forests, and such rich wildlife. Like children, their foreheads glued to the windows of the RV, we look with amazement at these majestic animals that we meet: Caribou, Wapiti, Moose, Mountain goats, Sheep, and Eagles.

Great moments without civilization separate the villages. These villages in the middle of nowhere make me think about what life once was and what it could be today.

It’s 7pm. Arrived at the Gold Mint Trailhead, we can now turn off the RV engine, light the stove, admire the mountains with a good beer. Charmed by the view that surrounds us. We are excited to start the adventure, but the lack of snow hits us. For some, April 6th may seem late in the ski season, but in Alaska, March and April are the best months of the season. The chili continues to cook. We take this opportunity to discuss the possibility of a low snowpack during the traverse, weather forecasts and our itinerary in the mountains.

The chili is ready.

During dinner, we study, again, the topographic map and discuss the impact of climate change on mountains and glaciers. The map shows a significant decline in glaciers since 1950. Glaciers in this part of Alaska are melting in both length and volume. Some have even lost more than 50% of their mass and others have disappeared in just 70 years.

We will have several days to continue this discussion, now it’s time to go to bed. A big day awaits us tomorrow. We have a little more than 14km before arriving at the first hut.

Mountain Oceans, Talkeetna Mountains, AK, USA | Photo Credit: Martin Richard

IT’S A START!

Everyone prepares their equipment. Nothing equals a departure at sunrise! It’s a perfect morning: a bright, clear, sunny day.

The bags are heavy, very heavy and it’s very hot. This first day of skiing will not be easy. After a few hours of skinning in the sun, the water reserves decrease as fast as our zinc reserves.

Thumbs up to the Little Susitna River which serves as a refreshment point all day long.

Cooling off in the creek | Photo Credit: Martin Richard

The proximity of this 180km river helps us face this heat. I am soaked from head to toe. My feet are shriveled and are already starting to hurt me. This heat affects our energy levels. The good news is that the further we go, the more snow there is!

13 km done in the Little Susitna valley.

No trace of the hut yet. It’s now the time of day when we have to climb up the slope. The slope is up to 35 degrees for 1,200 feet. That’s the final 2 km before finally removing our flooded liners. Fatigue settles in.

The hut is not easy to find. It’s located at the head of the valley, perched on a boulder at the edge of a cliff. We had to be close to 300 meters to find it. Joy seizes the group!

Everything is going fast: the skis are removed, skins, slippers, and clothes are hung to dry, the snow is already in the pot and will soon be ready to receive the food, mattresses and sleeping bags are ready in the loft and most importantly, our feet are in our down booties!

We all go outside to cherish the mountains that surround us. Five dominant peaks are surrounding us. I have the impression that the gods are watching over us. As if they were the protectors of this place. I feel privileged to be able to live this adventure. There are not enough adjectives to describe how I feel.

The way up to Mint Hut | Photo Credit: Martin Richard
The way up to Mint Hut | Photo Credit: Martin Richard
The Mint Hut | Photo Credit: Martin Ricahrd

MINT HUT TO BOMBER HUT

What a joy to wake up in a hut in the middle of the Alaska mountains! I slept like a baby! I’m full of energy and ready to attack the Backdoor Gap. As tradition demands, during breakfast, we discuss the game plan of the day by looking at the maps and topos guides.

The day is still hot, and it starts with an ascent of the Backdoor Gap. We don’t waste time putting on skis because the slope, early in the day, will be overheated very quickly by the sun. We don’t want to be in the middle of 35 degrees + slope in isothermal snow.

We skin, but quickly we put the crampons. Nothing is technical, but the weight of the bags, the heat of the sun and the quality of the snow, which is rapidly deteriorating, add challenge to this climb.

The top of the Backdoor Gap is closer and closer. Despite the fatigue, I can’t wait to see what’s waiting for me on the other side. I focus on my breathing, my feet, and my hands. A few meters from the head of the Gap, I begin to see mountain peaks that grow. I become excited like a child! Sam, already at the top, reaches out to me and says: ‘you did it, enjoy man’.

Wonderful! My heart beats at 100 miles an hour. I am so amazed by what I see that I don’t believe it. I don’t want to be yesterday or tomorrow. I am here, in the present, in the moment. My head is spinning. I am moved.

After taking back control of my emotions, we lunch. The weather still spoils us with this beautiful blue sky, but we must move because the wind rises slightly, and we see clouds coming. Everyone is ready to ride this beautiful glacier; The Penny Royal Glacier.

Backdoor Gap | Photo Credit: Martin Richard
Bomber Glacier | Photo Credit: Martin Richard

One after the other, we jump the cornice and ski the glacier. It’s euphoria. The first meters of the glacier are flat light but then visibility is back. After 2000 feet to trace the glacier, we reach the Bomber Hut.

The location and the view from the Bomber Hut beat the previous one. An almost 360-degree view of peaks and glaciers. It’s like a postcard. I thought that these mythical places were only for the pros. After hours of watching ski movies, I finally made it to the deep Alaska mountains.

We’re still the only ones in the hut. We are shirtless and barefoot, enjoying the sun that has never left us since the beginning of this adventure. How it feels good to share this moment with his friends. A precious moment that will go through time. We contemplate the ski potential that the place offers. After an hour of resting in the sun, Sam and I discuss potential skiable lines. Unfortunately, we couldn’t ski those lines as the bad weather suddenly got to us.

The storm raging outside prevents us from hitting the steeps. It’s early in the afternoon, but we accept our fate and bring out the best friend during a stormy day: the deck of cards! We played cards until bedtime. For some, these moments are frustrating, but for me, they are as important as a big powder day. These moments spent laughing and telling stories are priceless. Skiing is not just a sport, skiing is a community, skiing is people!

Bomber Hut | Photo Credit: Martin Richard
Rest at Bomber Hut | Photo Credit: Martin Richard

BOMBER HUT TO SNOWBIRD HUT

Once again, we wake up with the sun. The show remains unlikely. Our expectations were lower for that morning, knowing that last night conditions were very bad. But surprise! It’s still a bluebird day. We are truly blessed.

After some photos, we ski to the bottom of the valley. Once at the bottom of the valley, we put the skins back and start climbing. A slight climb to Snowbird Lake. This place is simply a huge auditorium of mountains and glaciers with endless ski lines. What surrounds us is so impressive that we pause a few minutes to fully understand the magnitude of this impressive landscape. Being in the middle of the alpine lake and surrounded by almost 360 degrees of enormous mountains, carries a rare energy that is hard to describe. I feel an intimacy, a connection with the environment that surrounds me.

It’s noon and we are hungry. We know we are near the hut. We analyze the terrain to understand where it might be. The Snowbird Glacier is on the other side of the lake, so we continue to climb. We are still skinning around looking for the Snowbird Hut but at every corner, we pass, it not there.

I’m hungry and my feet make me suffer, I decide to climb, to the top of the hill beside us, to have a better view, while the others are snacking. I think of nothing, only to move my feet and my poles. The further I go, the smaller the group becomes. At the top, I raise my head, my smile widens to its maximum, my eyes fill with water and I feel something rising in me. I am surrounded by this mountain field, this vast glacier, a nunatak, a blue sky, and exceptional snow.

I scream.

I keep silence.

I can’t stop laughing. It’s been two years that I have been waiting for this moment. Two years, that I’ve looked at this nunatak and today it’s there, in front of me! Tomorrow, I can leave my mark on this canvas. The possibilities are limitless. This is a reason to lose your head and have insomnia!

The rest of the group joins me at the hut. The Snowbird Hut is the largest and most beautiful of all. The view has nothing to envy to others.

As soon as we get to the hut, Sam and I are ready to go back and explore the surroundings. After some lines, we go back to the hut to rest and help others with the dinner. After a good meal, it’s now Stephan and Sam’s turn to ski. I would have liked to go back, but my feet just keep me from walking. I take this opportunity to do a surgery on my pre-shaped insoles. I don’t know why I didn’t take the time to make this modification before. My feet are finally happy!

Tracks on Snowbird Glacier | Photo Credit: Martin Richard
The way to Snowbird Glacier | Photo Credit: Martin Richard
Arriving at Snowbird Lake | Photo Credit: Martin Richard
Looking out onto Snowbird Lake | Photo Credit: Martin Richard
Looking out onto Snowbird Lake | Photo Credit: Martin Richard

SKI DAY

No traveling today. Only skiing! We are still blessed! The temperature is simply… perfect! We can’t believe it. How is it possible to have five straight days of really good weather in Alaska?

We go skiing South of the glacier around the nunatak. At the highest point of the glacier, we can see Mt. Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America. Another wonder to add to the list. The day is surreal. We could never have asked for better conditions.

During the trip to Alaska, I told Stephan, Sam, and Amelie that if there was a bluebird day, it was hot, the snow was nice and the snowpack was stable, that I’ll ski naked on this glacier! Well, I did it. I had no choice. I couldn’t decline an opportunity like that. Another thing to check on the bucketlist: skiing butt-naked on a glacier in Alaska!

Back to the hut, after a day of skiing, savoring every turn. We are exhausted but filled with happiness. The energy is contagious at the hut. Everyone is on a cloud. It’s a party! We eat all the food we have left and admire the sunset.

The colors are dancing on the mountains. Sam and I decide to enjoy the last moments of light to go on our last descent. We hurry to put the skis on and leave for the top of the glacier in a hurry. Once at destination, we take some time to cherish this golden hour. There’s a silence, a disconcerting calmness, an inexplicable peace of mind. The sun will rapidly set behind the mountains from one minute to the next. The light is soft, satiny, lustrous. We are looking at a real masterpiece. This moment is exceptionally special and to appreciate it 100%, we decide to do this last run without our GoPros, without photos, without a cell, and in silence. There’s just the two of us and the sound of the snow flying at every turn. I can feel my heart beating and the sound of my breathing. Down at the hut, the sky, the air, and the weather are clear, soft, pure and calm.

On the way back, I think back to everything I saw and experienced during this adventure in the Talkeetna Mountains. It’s with hindsight that I quickly understand that when you spend a large part of your life in nature, you must protect these wild spaces by inviting more people to respectfully play outside, to reconnect with nature. It is when you are in the company of this beautiful nature that you understand its vulnerability and the importance of preserving its wild state.

Snowbird Glacier | Photo Credit: Martin Richard
Nunatak Hut | Photo Credit: Martin Richard
Nunatak Hut | Photo Credit: Martin Richard
The way out | Photo Credit: Martin Richard

1 Comment

  • Geraldine Villemont, December 28, 2020 @ 10:11 pm Reply

    Wow! Such a good article Martin! Every thing is in there : the poesy, the technic, the prep and plan, the emotions, the scenery, the friendship and firt of all your inner connection with the Mountains. Gegee

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