AK. Searching for Snow in Thompson Pass. Part 1: Schoolbus.

Today’s post comes to you from SteamDot, a coffee shop in Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city. We have been here for two days generally resupplying and making use of the amenities after being off the grid for most of the last week. Yesterday we had our first real showers in 2 weeks, we did laundry, cleaned the camper, and I spent a few hours under the hood changing out and tensioning a squeaky drive belt. It should be noted that before this trip the most advanced car maintenance I had done myself was changing the air filter, so you could imagine my satisfaction at successfully solving our squeaky belt issue! There will have to be a camper maintenance blog entry at some point.

I’m excited to finally be getting to the meat; stories from the road. A good friend gave me the wise advice that it’s better to spend more time in less places, than to spread time thinly over many places. I’d like to apply that philosophy to the blog . This is why you, the reader, will find a sizeable hole in the blog’s coverage between Vancouver, BC and Valdez, AK. Suffice it to say that we drove a great deal, and saw many beautiful places. I recommend you all visit Stone Mountain Nation Park and the Liard Hot Springs in the Yukon. We’ll pass over those stories in favour of getting deeper into our adventures questing for snow in Alaska.

While packing for the trip I was quite sceptical about whether we should even bother with bringing ski gear. It would double the amount of gear we were carrying, and I wasn’t very optimistic about the conditions given Alaska’s snow year was similar to ours. None the less, I found some encouraging reports on the TGR forums (tetongravity.com) from late May. Jessa’s comment that she would so very much like to get on snow again this year sealed the deal and skis were loaded along with all the associated toys. Upon arrival in Alaska we set about figuring out where we had the best shot at finding snow. We asked around at information centers and with locals but were mostly just laughed at. Thanks to some excellent help from Matt and his website thompsonpass.com we decided to head for Thompson Pass. Situated in the Chugach Range about 30 miles outside of Valdez, this 855 m tall pass gets more snowfall than anywhere else in Alaska.

We rolled into the Worthington Glacier Recreation Area parking in Thompson Pass lot around 7pm with two potential targets in mind. The first was Schoolbus, a patch of snow on the south side of the highway and the second was the Worthington Glacier to the north. With the forecast calling for a week of straight rain starting at midnight, we sprang into action to take advantage of what might be our only shot to ski with good weather. It was just a few days after solstice, and this far north that means it’s light 20-22 hours a day. This was a comforting thought as we departed the parking lot at 9pm to attempt to ski Schoolbus, which I deemed to be the more conservative of the two choices.

Gearing up in the Worthington parking lot
Gearing up in the Worthington parking lot

The hike started with fording a creek just meters away from the road. It always amazes me how much power flowing water holds. I found myself working hard to maintain my footing in the relatively benign looking thigh deep flow. Upon successfully crossing the creek with packs and boots on I triumphantly proclaimed “Nothing can stop us now”, before promptly noticing that we had forgotten our ski boots in the camper. So it was hiking boots off again to cross the bone achingly cold creek twice more to return with the ski boots.

The Little Camper That Could, and the creek I crossed 4 times
The Little Camper That Could, and the creek I crossed 4 times

Next we walked across alpine meadows in gradually thickening bush. Eventually we found ourselves thrashing through overhead brush to access the steeper mossy slopes above. Moving uphill is much more challenging because the winter snow’s downhill motion forces the brush to lean downhill, snagging effectively on protruding skis and boots. After some zig zagging and general thrashing we graduated to steeper clearer terrain. The next challenge was ascending steep loose rocky slopes higher up. Often it was 2 steps forward, 1 step back. The terrain was very similar to the loose and crumbly Canadian Rockies and the travel was strenuous.

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Jessa ascends the scree
Jessa ascends the scree

We enjoyed breath taking views of Catcher’s Mitt across the valley, while suppressing the anxiety that it was about to get dark. In the north the sunsets and sunrises seem to stand still. They last for hours. About 2 hours in we hit snow but determined, perhaps unwisely, that the patch was too small to be worth skinning on and so continued to scramble.

Mmmm Kippersnacks
Mmmm Kippersnacks
Beautiful views across the valley
Beautiful views across the valley

Eventually the scree gave way to a snowy open bowl where we skinned to the top of a small col at about 1450 meters. The descent was a worthwhile reward. We enjoyed a pleasantly steep open run back into the bowl and then followed a 2 meter wide vane of snow to an exciting steeper narrow section terminating in the creek below. We completed the descent around 1:30 am without needing headlamps. With the advantage of being able to see more from above we found a mercifully easier route down the mountain and were curled up warm in our beds by 3. Completely wiped but but very satisfied, we fell asleep to the sound of the rain starting to patter on the roof.

Skinning up, light is fading slowly
Skinning up, light is fading slowly
Jessa on the lower section of Schoolbus
Jessa on the lower section of Schoolbus

Despite poor weather, after a short visit to Valdez, we took a shot at Worthington glacier 3 days later. Stay tuned to hear more.

The toe of Worthington Glacier
The toe of the Worthington Glacier

T

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