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Fear and Wind Loading on Thompson Pass

Trip Report: ​How To Ski Alaska On A Budget

Story by Matt Beauregard

It's 10am. I’m curled up on a five-foot-long vinyl couch staring up at a beige ceiling. The smell of stale beer and ski boots is momentarily interrupted by an arctic breeze and the rich scent of Folgers. Native Alaskan and Fairbanks resident Clyde Hewitt is now standing in the galley of our 31H Minnie Winnie Motorhome with a steaming pot of coffee. "Welcome to the One Love Lot boys; we were talking in the Wildwood this morning and decided we'd like to bump you all up to the shoulder of Girls Mountain.” (A 5500-foot roadside peak that towers over the Worthington Glacier.) After graciously accepting the coffee and the sled bump, we desperately pounded down two liters of Tang each. A short time later we were waving goodbye to our new friends and preparing ourselves for the final 1000 feet of touring before making our first descent of the trip. We looked out over the endless sea of glaciers and jagged white summits that make up Alaska's Chugach range, the only signs of human presence was the meandering black pavement of Thompson pass and our shimmering home on wheels.

The birthplace of Alaskan big mountain skiing, the culture on Thompson Pass was forged not by developers and celebrities in cowboy hats but by Vietnam-era helicopter pilots, wild Alaskan Natives, and an elite corp of backcountry pioneers with names like Doug Coombs, Michael Cozad, and Shaun Palmer. Beginning in 1991, a former roadhouse for Pipeline workers named the Tsaina Lodge located 31 miles inland from the fishing village of Valdez would serve as an annual rendezvous point during the month of April for North American skiers seeking a more remote and wild backcountry experience.

Sam Erhard, Rick Lawler, Christian Beauregard and Drew Grout have a beer with Clyde Hewitt after he gave everyone a sled bump to the top of Gully 1. | Stephen Koeller photo.

In the years to come, word got out. Professional dirtbags and amateur skiers and snowboarders from around the globe would make the pilgrimage annually, and this raucous gathering would eventually spill out of the Tsaina and fill every roadside turn out for 15 miles. At 61.18 degrees North, much of the 800 inches of snow falls unnoticed in the cold, dark Alaskan winter. But as skiing in the Lower 48 draws to a close, the Thompson pass season begins to fire up. Six minutes of light are added daily to the already long spring days, and the pass transforms from a desolate arctic corridor to a muddy paradise of motorhomes, trailers, tents, and the occasional school bus.

While I've certainly painted a romantic picture of skiing on the last frontier, this type of low-budget getaway may not be for the faint of heart, but in truth, the only barrier to entry is high expectations and a lack of sanitation. To help each reader decide for themselves whether or not an RV ski trip in Alaska is for them, I will share some of the highs, lows and mishaps that made this past trip one for the books.

Our Journey began the morning of April 2nd in Jackson Hole, a day dreaded by most Jackson residents as it followed the world-famous Gaper Day celebration. For us, it was the conclusion to another record-breaking powder season and the start of a pilgrimage north to kick off a new season. Despite the apparent challenges of flying out on such a morning, one by one, we all made our departures, and unlike our return journey, managed to not lose a single bag. By design, we appointed our most presentable crew member, Christian, to fly in several hours early and pick up our motor home from Great Alaskan Holidays. They are a family-run motor home rental agency in Anchorage that would have undoubtedly been terrified by the sight of seven red-eyed dirtbags pulling into the lot with three massive bags each. My travel companion Stephen and I were fortunate to arrive in Anchorage last, at 12:45 am. A shining 31-foot RV waited at the baggage claim, already equipped with close friends, cold beverages, and overflowing with gear. After a short drive to the nearest Walmart parking lot, we were soon being lulled to sleep by the nearby sounds of police sirens. We awoke the next morning having not yet purchased RV antifreeze for the bathroom but were pleasantly surprised to find we were not the only ones utilizing the parking lot as a restroom. No three-week venture far from towns or utilities is complete without an incredibly rushed and slightly frantic food buy. Having just come off a Grand Canyon trip the previous fall, I was eager to recreate a similar culinary experience, full of canned vegetables, spam, bacon, and freshly chopped vegetables. With meals like curry chicken fajitas, burgers, tuna salad, and homemade Mac & cheese in mind, we left our final grocery stop, each owing just under $200 per head. We then perused various liquor stores, thrift shops, and several other perfectly legal Alaskan small businesses.

One love lot with Python, a trophy ski descent, lurking in the background. | Stephen Koeller photo.

At 10 p.m. on April 3rd, with the RV now completely overflowing with ski gear, beer, and groceries, we began the seven hour, 380-mile drive to Thompson pass. Not wanting to miss out on the many scenic vistas of the Alaska Highway system, we found a boat launch on the Matanuska river and slept until morning. Rolling out of Palmer, Alaska, we were fortunate to take advantage of brief moments of clear skies to view far-off glaciers and magnificent river valleys as we traversed the 49th state. 290 miles later, we left the tundra and muskeg of central Alaska in the rearview and stared forward as the Chugach mountains rose into the clouds. Upon reaching mile marker 29 of the Richardson Highway, we stepped out of the warm motor home into a frigid alpine desert, surrounded by dirtbag rigs, snow machines, and a cast of T-Pass veterans who looked as rugged and wild as their surroundings.

After burping the RV of all things that did not require indoor storage, we still had a couple of hours of daylight, so while the rest of the crew began rehearsing crevasse rescue scenarios and pulley systems, I took on the duty of preparing the first meal in the motorhome. With welcoming cross parking lot wind gusts of 50 mph, and a brisk temp of 1 degree Fahrenheit, I decided it was a great night to test out the indoor kitchen of our motorhome. With memories of prepping meals under the hot sun of the Grand Canyon now quickly fading, I suited up to collect snow for melting into water over our propane stove. Despite my best efforts to find clean white snow free of urine or feces, I quickly came to the conclusion that the previous inhabitants of our parking lot were more averse to the carry-in carry out method of shitting in a bucket and realized proper hydration would require more water storage containers, and frequent trips to the Valdez to refill said tanks. Despite this quick reality check, our dinner of french toast and Hormel corned beef hash was beyond satisfying, and spirits were high.

Crossing the Worthington Glacier. | Kyle Freudenberg photo.

Back at the top of Girls Mountain, after a brief boot pack to the true summit, we once again took in our spectacular surroundings, and one by one, began descending the first pitch. With parking lot temps of 4 degrees at 11 am, 5500' above, the air took on a violent bite as ridgetop winds buffeted us without rest. Even with our BCA radios, verbal communication was limited at best, and with questionable snowpack, route finding through "lower angle" terrain proved more difficult than would have been assumed from the perspective of the highway.

The squalls that met us on our first ski day were far from an aberration and would continue to strengthen over the coming days, so much that roadside wind meters just two miles away would record speeds of over 100 miles per hour, with wind chill values at high noon dipping below -45F. Determined to keep skiing, the next day we decided to tour to the top of Gully 1, a popular zone out the backdoor of our Minnie Winnie, with some of the most moderate slope angles on the Pass. The now aged snow became more and more firm as we climbed and did not inspire confidence in pursuing larger objectives. As we descended with caution, our party member Sam crossed a convexity in the low light and triggered a substantial wind slab avalanche he was lucky to ski away from. With no end to the wind insight, we came to the unanimous conclusion that until the snow had settled and winds had died, we'd have to come up with new means of entertainment.

As we skied back to the parking lot, humbled by our close encounter, we were greeted by an assemblage of fellow lot lizards with equally humbled demeanors. Several miles away, while bootpacking a ridge above the Hoodoo Glacier, four skiers had slid over 2000 vertical feet and were beyond fortunate to have made it home safe. Back in the Motor Home, we passed a bottle of Jim Beam, and each recited our own perspectives of the day's scary events. Though warm inside, the brutal weather remained present in our mind as the 31-foot fiberglass box rocked in the wind, and the high summits that surrounded us became blurred as southeast faces were rapidly stripped of their snow. While full beers sweat on our small dining table, ski boot liners and damp base layers froze to the floor. An unavoidable reality of living in a three-season camper in an arctic environment.

Things you see only in AK: a Jeep Cherokee that has been modified for off road snow and glacial travel. | Stephen Koeller photo.

As conversation transitioned from what had happened to what was next, we did not lament long before a parade of costumed men bearing bottom shelf whiskey helped us make up our minds. "Drink it blue!" exclaimed one, "drink it calm," shouted another. Our new Fairbanks friends filed into our rented RV one by one, and before we knew it, any thought of a security deposit drifted from our minds. We were soon enjoying Copper River King Salmon, Moose steaks, and a T-Pass Classic, freshly killed and grilled Porcupine courtesy of the locals. The next two days passed quickly as the sound of snow machines and newly arriving rigs were replaced by constant wind and groans of discomfort as we argued over who should dig out our shit bucket that was disappearing under transported snow every few hours. While this type of weather event may be lamented greatly inside a heli-ski lodge where guests have a total of seven days to ski for a price tag of around $15,000, on Thompson pass spirits remained high, with games of TROUT, trips to the Fat Mermaid bar in Valdez, and music and dancing persisted into the early hours of the morning.

Five days into our trip, the high winds receded and gave way to a brief respite of calm before being replaced by pounding snow. While we remained wary of skiing open, wind-loaded terrain, we followed the advice of several locals, and after an hour of digging out our home on wheels, drove 10 miles east down the pass to a gentle and protected couloir known as Key to Lisa. The easy climb was a welcomed break from the cabin fever that had ensued in the parking lot and allowed for some mellow turns and a much-needed haircut.

Morning meetings. | Kyle Freudenberg photos.

Temperatures rose with the arrival of new snow, but in the absence of trees or exposed rock, visibility became such that glacier travel or even casual turns became impossible. Frightened of what we may have become after another three days of inactivity on the Pass, we expanded our scope of possible activities. After hearing rumors of a karaoke night at the Fat Mermaid in Valdez, we again dug out the RV and headed for the coast. We soon rolled into the bar with high hopes of singing the classics of Dido, System of a Down, and the Talking Heads. We were quickly disappointed to learn that the karaoke night was, in fact, an open mic. Given that our team of seven lacked any semblance of true musical talent, we were overjoyed when the DJ allowed us to bring up lyrics and music via cell phone, a decision they would ultimately regret.

Following another wild bender full of new friends, plastic liquor bottles, and hand-rolled cigarettes, we awoke on the edge of Valdez harbor on the morning of our eighth day. The continuously delayed task of washing dishes outdoors had made creating a proper breakfast almost impossible. While the storm blanketed the mountains with thick snow, Valdez became a giant mud puddle. With skiing out of the question, we at last, decided to face our growing hygiene concerns. Despite the challenges of RV life, Valdez harbor provides (almost) all of the amenities lacking on the Pass. Primarily a fishing port for Salmon fishermen, a constantly running hose of freshwater can be pulled from the sea and used to refill water tanks and wash dishes. Better yet, for $4, you can access 10 minutes of hot water in a perfectly clean fisherman's shower. At the nearby Prospector outdoor store, you can entertain yourself for hours perusing everything from firearms to crampons, ski bindings, and commercial fishing equipment. The local Safeway maintains a flourishing hot bar with gourmet fried chicken buckets and a reasonably priced liquor store. After several hours of touristing about we found ourselves at the Valdez visitor center. An otherwise uneventful stop, we learned of our close proximity to the magnificent yet receding Valdez Glacier. Just six miles from town, the moraine of the glacier had given way to a frozen lake of icebergs, absent of crevasses and frozen in place. These deep blue ancient chunks of cracked ice rising 40 feet above the lake create passages, corridors, and caves more similar to the sandstone of southeast Utah than any ice or snow formation found in the lower 48.

Exploring the ice caves outside Valdez on a down day. | Stephen Koeller photo.

After two days of spelunking, ice climbing, and constantly refreshing Weather Underground, the storm was beginning to clear. It was Day 11, and as the RV climbed the pass, the rain gave way to snow, and we were greeted in the parking lot by 30 inches of pow. Still wary from the close encounters of our second day, we decided to return to Gully 1 to enjoy low-angle pow turns and a terribly placed jump. For the first time since the start of the trip, the forecast now showed 5 days of high pressure and daytime highs approaching 35 degrees. The sun was accompanied by a new fleet of camper rigs and scores of skiers and snow machiners eager to share in the joy of Mother Nature's coming blessings. Barbecue grills and open coolers now surrounded every vehicle, and the lot was once more abuzz with the roaring of sleds and jubilant voices recounting the day’s adventures.

After a safe return to skiing the day before, we arose the following morning to a bright blue sky and a warm, gentle breeze. My morning trip to the bucket looking out at the mountains was no longer a dreaded reality of life on the pass and instead a magnificent moment of serenity. Staring up at the beautiful peaks ahead of me, I no longer prayed for better weather or wished for different circumstances. My mind was now filled with gratitude and anticipation, and the beauty of the mountains inspired nothing but hope and seemingly endless possibilities for what lay ahead. This newfound energy could be felt throughout the entire lot. With skins on our skis and ropes on our bags, we set out across the highway to begin our most significant objective yet, 27 Mile peak, directly above the west side of the Worthington. We reached the edge of the glacier halfway through our tour and tied ourselves into two rope teams. Like children playing with new presents on Christmas morning, we dawned our kiwi coils, strapped our axes to our poles, and rejoiced that we were finally doing the type of glacial mountaineering we had traveled so far to enjoy. The long tour passed with ease, and gratitude replaced fatigue as the dominant emotion. Once at the summit we disposed of the extra 12 ounces we each carried, and looked out with pride over the finest view any of us had laid eyes on. The Northeast face we descended had stayed perfectly cool throughout the morning, and soon we were arcing fast turns thru a dreamy and smooth surface of whipped cream and never touching another track. Paradise found. 

Regrouping after a successful ski descent, with Sam Erhard and Drew Grout going back for more. | Kyle Freudenberg photos.

After blasting off the toe of the glacier at high speeds to prevent testing any snow bridges, we returned to a parking lot of faces as euphoric as our own. It was now around the time of day in the lower 48 when boots would come off, and (more) beers would come out. 5 p.m. on Thompson Pass, however provides the opportunity for an even happier “happy hour”. Five hours of daylight remained, and the offer for sled bumps was once again extended to us. Despite an already perfect day, we filled our bags with beers, pepperoni sticks, Tillamook cheese blocks, and headed up. The novelty of tearing up gullies, Canadian style, on 800cc snow machines had not yet been lost on any of us. Hoots, howls and smiles abounded as dirty, unwashed hands passed chunks of meat, cheese, and funky cigarettes around the group of 10 that now sit high above the parking lot. As the sun began to kiss the peaks to our west, we transitioned to ski mode to enjoy the 9 p.m. golden-white canvas that stretched out below us. Screams of joy and jubilant laughter rang out between the peaks as we skied in one large group, weaving in and out of our friends, and letting our skis take on a mind of their own. Unrestricted by trees, rocks, or slow signs. With only a quarter-mile of skating between us and the parking lot, expletives and laughter seemed to be the only possible way to express the joy the day had brought. Before we had taken three steps, a different snowmachine now approached, and soon our dear friend Jerry Lee was uncoiling a rope to haul us back into camp with. 

Dropped only 50 feet from our RV, 45 or so lot folk stood between us and the ability to take off our ski boots. While we could have navigated our way through the bodies, the stoke of our new friends and the stories of the day that had just passed kept us in our ski boots until the first flashes of green, purple, and blue flashed through the sky. The Aurora Borealis had arrived. Burgers sizzled on the grill, while moose, caribou, and salmon were passed around the fire. The motley crew of former strangers stood close and rejoiced as the northern lights dominated the skyline. This was day 15 of the trip, and it did not need to be said that everything we had endured prior was justified by a single day.

The next four days continued in a similar fashion. As is typical for high-pressure windows in mid-April, each day brought warmer temps. Like in any proper ski town, the rising temperatures gave way to wet slides, corn snow, costumes, and disco. As was the case with the entire trip, the evening barbecues reinforced the importance of strong bartering currency. Thompson Pass is a generous place by nature, but ensuring you have something to offer will go a long way in maximizing your experience. Beer, whiskey, and other vices are a great way to break the ice, but as the weather improves and no one feels like spending two hours in a car driving to Valdez, they grow in value exponentially. Hot meals will never be turned down, and the gift of fajitas one night will undoubtedly be returned the following. The barter system can extend far beyond the traditional food and booze swap, however, and proper navigation of the system and an open mind can lead to new experiences. On one occasion, while skiing behind the RV, party member Drew happened upon a group flying speed wings and was fortunate to be offered a short flight. Similarly, I was given a chance to start my snowmachine hill climb career when I was offered an old sled for an afternoon in exchange for cheeseburgers and gas. Four flips later I realized the terrain the Fairbanks boys had been navigating with ease, while carting our asses up, was in fact out far outside of my own ability level. 

Steep bootpacks lead to glorious turns. Stephen Koeller going up, Kyle Freudenberg going down. | Kyle Freudenberg and Stephen Koeller photos.

With our return flights scheduled for the night of the 20th, we planned to depart the Pass the afternoon of the 19th. Our final ski descent on the north face of “Berlin Wall” provided us with one last vista of the expansive Chugach, all after a truly puckering bootpack. Having finally scratched the suffer itch raw, we returned to the parking lot. Collecting beer cans, loading skis, and consolidating 18 days of wag bags into several trash bags made for a bittersweet end to our time on the Pass. As fellow campers returned from their own daily activities, we shared long goodbyes and made vows to return the following spring. As our RV turned north out of the parking lot, the interior looked and smelled dramatically different than the pristine rental that had been issued just 18 days earlier. While our conversations circulated around various highs and lows of the trip, the long-forgotten “security deposit” once more crept into our minds. We were confident the smell and sticky surfaces alone would horrify anyone who stepped foot inside, so our cleaning operation would have to be swift but extensive. Once in Anchorage, we drove straight to Walmart to acquire $80 worth of cleaning supplies of all varieties. We then checked into a hotel room, unloaded all of our personal belongings, and dug in. With Walter White levels of scrutiny and chemical mixtures, we set out to do the impossible. While some scrubbed floors, others washed dishes in the hotel bathroom. Bedding was stored in trash bags, and cushions were sanitized three times in the parking lot before returning to their respective homes. Liquor, beer, Tang, and grime had coated the rubber floors and had even found their way onto the ceiling. All completely unavoidable realities of such a trip. Three and a half hours later my brother Christian and I were pulling into the parking lot of Great Alaskan Holidays in a vehicle that, on the inside, looked identical to the one they had rented us. Despite smelling like an over-chlorinated swimming pool, it was once more safe for human occupancy. With seven hours left before our red-eye flights, we enjoyed much needed showers and a final home-cooked meal at The Alaskan Bush Company. By 11:30 p.m. after hours of recounting stories and making merry, the pent-up fatigue from the prior three weeks finally set it, and an exhaustion spread throughout the crew. Our arrival at the airport at midnight drew the attention of TSA and airline employees alike, and we were provided a first class escort directly to our terminal! Just prior to boarding, party member Stephen finally realized the ski bag and duffel with all his most precious belongings still sat in the hotel. As if without a care in the world, Stephen shrugged off the undoubtedly costly mistake. There was unanimous agreement that forgotten bags were a trivial inconvenience and only added to the many comedies of our adventure in the 49th state.

***

So, you think that sounds rad? Here’s some tips and tricks we learned along the way.

Cost of a Motorhome:

-Minnie Winnie 31H from Great Alaskan Holidays: $250 per night (sleeps 8)
-Security Deposit: By the grace of god and $75 worth of cleaning supplies, we were able to recoup all but $150 for damage to the screen door. In reality though, just don’t be a dick and break everything in a rental RV.
-Gas prices ranged from $2.71-$3.18 a gallon, and at the time of the trip were only about 9 percent higher than those in Wyoming.

Challenges of a Motorhome:

-Most rental RV’s are not equipped with insulated water tanks. As a result, no liquids can be stored in the onboard plumbing system.
-Similarly, no liquids can be poured down the sink, making dishes something of a chore.
-Though they sleep 8, this requires two people per bed (no biggie).
-Moving around an RV with seven people in it while wearing ski boots and oftentimes climbing harnesses requires extreme fitness, and provides a great simulation of life in a WW2 era Submarine.
-Not all frozen pizzas will fit inside the RV oven, Chicago style deep dish however maximizes the volume restrictions. Similarly, the freezer is also quite small, so keep this in mind when purchasing food.
-RV antifreeze can be poured directly into the toilet to allow for usage, however #2’s are still best enjoyed on a five-gallon bucket with a toilet seat while staring at the mountains.

Services in Valdez:

-The Local Safeway is only about 15 percent more expensive than Anchorage. Given you’ll need to go there to refill water and propane every 3-4 days anyways, don’t be afraid to restock fresh vegetables/meats on a similar basis.
-The Fisherman's Wharf offers showers for $4 per 10 minutes, however for $10 a person you can access unlimited hot water and laundry services at the Mountain Sky Hotel. You may have party members object to this added cost, but you may want to force them anyway.
-The Fat Mermaid Bar & Restaurant is a great place to make friends, and far more welcoming than your local ski town bar.
-The Prospector Outdoor shop sells propane, IsoPro tanks, and is a BCA certified air canister refill station. Keep in mind, fuel and full air canisters can not fly on any commercial airline. (Before arriving at the airport, be sure to “pop” your air bag, remove the canister, and unscrew the pressure gauge at the top to prevent any hold ups with TSA.

Cell Service:

Verizon users can access LTE from a temporary Cell tower that lives in the milepost 26 parking lot for the month of April. All carriers provide limited service in Valdez, and Wi-Fi can be accessed for a small fee in a number of locations. With this said, you're best off downloading map layers prior to the trip, and having one Satellite communicator device per two or three party members for the many places cell service is not available.