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Returning From An Alaska Dream Trip to The COVID-19 World

Editor's Note: Tony "Harro" Harrington is an Australian adventure filmmaker and photographer, and a longtime friend of the TGR family.

Anton Grimus checking in from high above in the Chugach. Tony Harrington photo.

Anton Grimus and I had been talking about an Alaskan adventure for a while, however he had a bit on his plate training for his third Winter Olympic Games. Then about six weeks ago, he called to say he’d made a huge decision and stepped away from Olympic competition. By the end of the phone call he had decided his next ski chapter would be big mountain freeriding. So the Alaska plan was a go. Kit Rundle, a snowboarder, photographer and Mt. Buller stalwart joined us at the 11th hour. We knew it would be an adventure. We didn’t know then just how much.

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It started with a bang; four massive days of perfect weather and crazy ski lines. Snow machines, snowcats and a helicopter were our rides. We’d come back to our campervan each evening physically spent and mentally buzzing. We were in our remote Alaskan bubble and life was incredible. The full impact of what was steadily unfolding around the world wasn’t that obvious to us. Then we had a down day. A huge storm rolled into the Chugach Range and we had time to tune in to the news.

The last time I experienced the shock of a global crisis was during 9-11. At the time, I was on a far-flung part of coastline in Southwest New Zealand living off the grid in a remote spot only accessible by beach plane, boat or helicopter. It was four days after New York’s Twin Towers crumbled that a pilot delivering supplies showed us the newspaper. It was surreal. I had American friends with me – snowboarder Jeremy Jones, Jason Ford and a few others. Jason had family in New York. We sat on a pristine beach and tried to grapple with how the world had changed.

The COVID-19 news felt different. We steadily realized it was a rolling disaster and it was either already happening or about to affect everyone, everywhere. The idea that we were safely tucked away in remote Alaska and it wasn’t going to touch us quickly faded. The stories we read showed it was progressing around the planet. Asia, Europe, cases popping up in New York and even Seattle. It was closing in. Anchorage shut down bars and restaurants and then the nerves really kicked in.

Carving turns while the world was still innocent. Tony Harrington photo.

Just like that we decided we had to leave. Immediately. It was frustrating and frightening to watch airline prices skyrocket each time we checked – climbing higher each hour as we waited on hold to try and change bookings for an earlier flight home. We got on the road trying to reschedule plans as we drove.

I steered our 28-foot camper hauling a 28-foot trailer for the snow machines through a wild, stormy night on narrow ice covered roads. Massive trucks would blow past sending up a curtain of snow and I’d drive blind for seconds that felt like an eternity, white knuckled and sweating while trying to hold our rig steady.

Anton, Kit and I were all on different flights and bookings so reluctantly we had to split up. Thankfully Alaskan Airlines made a quick and inexpensive change to get me down to Seattle. As I left, the boys were still battling to find someone to speak to at Qantas and navigating terrifying price hikes. It felt horrible parting ways and none of us knowing exactly how we’d get home or what it was going to cost.

I have never been so fastidious about my personal hygiene as I have been in recent weeks. As soon as I was around people in Anchorage and felt that worry of contagion I shifted into sterile mode like I was about to scrub in for surgery.

I’ve lived a life of pushing boundaries in big ocean and big mountains, taken leaps of faith using skill, experience, focus and gut instinct, and wherever possible having a Plan B. Maybe it has all been good training for what I experienced on this journey. COVID-19 meant circumstances were changing hourly. Decisions had to be made quickly with the information available. There was no luxury of waiting, of reviewing options.

So it became really clear. Move in the direction of home, stay away others, don’t touch anything and continuously wash and sanitize. The supermarket was already out of antiseptic wipes so I Macgyver’ed my own. A Zip-Lock bag with isopropyl alcohol and cotton swabs would do the job. I wiped anything I had to touch - seat buckles, tray tables, trolleys and then my hands again. I now appreciate how people with OCD feel. Everything felt like a threat. Everything felt like it might be contaminated.

Landing in Seattle that night, I chose to avoid the shuttle bus and walked with my trolley and bags several kilometers to where my car was garaged. It was already 9 p.m. but on hearing Seattle was getting COVID cases I didn't want to stay around, so I hit the road for another night of driving. My flight home was out of Jackson Hole - 1,400km away. I had to keep moving.

By midnight, I couldn’t keep my eyes open and pulled over to sleep. I rearranged some of the luggage in the back of the wagon and with no blanket I uncomfortably dozed off. I lasted an hour and half before the sub-zero temperatures woke me and I resumed driving to warm up. I was tempted to try and sleep with the car’s engine running, but the last thing I needed was to be overcome with fumes and risk never waking up again.

The rest of the night was a blur of driving, stopping, dozing, waking up cold and driving again. By 6:30 a.m. the sun crept over the horizon, directly into my eyes. I pulled over and the morning sun and sheer exhaustion meant I finally got a few hours of deep sleep. A friend’s phone call at 8 a.m. jolted me awake or I think I might have slept for hours. Jackson was still 10 hours and two state lines away. As I drove I was still trying to figure out my flight home. It was booked, but for 10 days time. It might as well have been in a month. There was no way I could sit on my hands and wait 10 days. The news was getting scarier and I was getting worried.

That night in Jackson, I waited on hold until nearly midnight and managed to through to Qantas. The operator was extremely helpful and did her best to find me the least expensive flight change. It came to A$666. I borrowed my partner’s credit card and finally fell asleep knowing I would was on my way home the next afternoon.

Cloudy skies above Jackson Hole reflect the mood in town. Tony Harrington photo.

Jackson is one of my happy places. This day it felt eerie. Clouds hung low over the Tetons. The town was still. The resort had closed the week before. Most of my friends had been put out of work already. Many were figuring out how they were going to support their families. No one was untouched by this crisis.

There was only one virus case at that time in the Teton County but the anxiety was thick in the air. Everyone I spoke with was scared and overwhelmed by this thing, totally out of our control. I talked with educated, smart, ‘can-do’ people trying to make decisions to protect their family and community and mostly bewildered at the attitude of their political leaders and the confusing messages on the news. This was happening. Now. And we were all feeling freaked out.

There were only five people on my flight to Los Angeles. One girl had a sniffle, someone else coughed. Did THEY have the virus? Luckily I was seated a good distance away but that didn’t stop my mind racing. If I could have held my breath for three hours I would have. I was thankful I had spent that long cross-country drive training myself not to touch my face.

Coming in over Los Angeles the first thing I noticed was the lack of traffic on the freeways. Friday afternoon is usually chaos on the Interstate 5, 710 and 405 that run north to south. Not today.

LA's freeways devoid of their usual bumper-to-bumper traffic. Tony Harrington photo.

Transfer halls within LAX were ghostly quiet. As I followed the long corridor through Tom Bradley International, I came around a corner and was halted in my tracks. A grand piano sat in a wide empty hall. A young woman had put down her bags and was playing. A surgical mask covered her face and the most beautiful melody that I’ve ever heard was filling the vast space, which felt transformed into a concert hall. For a few minutes I stood still and listened. The craziness forgotten, if just for a moment. I asked if I could take a few photos and she shyly agreed. I dropped them to her phone and thanked her for the music. I headed on, feeling a little more hopeful.

CIt's not often you hear beautiful melodies in an airport. Tony Harrington photo.

I still had six long hours before my flight home. Thankfully the airport was pretty empty so I could find a place to set up away from anyone else. Religiously I applied my homemade sanitizing cocktail to anything I touched, which wasn’t much. I tried not to dwell too much on the 14-hour flight ahead. My mind was looping - if I’m to be exposed to the virus now will be the time. Finally it was time to board. We all kept our distance. None of the usual crowds or close queuing. We all eyed each other looking out for anyone sniffing. It felt like Russian Roulette – who was going to be sitting near me? Thank goodness I scored three seats to myself. Maybe it was my frequent flyer benefit. Or just luck.

Disembarking in Sydney there were people handing out leaflets and looking for anyone who seemed ill. I was thankful to get through customs smoothly and avoid waiting in lines or being too close to anyone. One more flight to the Gold Coast. Nearly there. Everyone on the flight was quiet, expressionless. We all just wanted to get home, quickly, safely and clean.

Mask life. Tony Harrington photo.

My brother-in-law and niece brought my car to the airport and threw the keys to me from a distance. My amazing sister had packed my car with fresh veggies, fruit and some basics to kick off my isolation. I drove straight to the cabin where I am sitting out my two weeks. As I write this,  five days have already passed. So far I’m feeling well. And relieved.

Anton and Kit are home too, holed up, and we are keeping in touch.

I’m lucky, as I have thousands of photos to sort and edit from Alaska and elsewhere the past few. Good memories and a window to the world while I sit inside four very close walls.

There is nothing like a forced retreat to make you pause and reflect. I am eating as healthy as I can, monitoring my temperature three times a day, trying to avoid too much news which will make me crazy, but most importantly taking this time embrace change in the world and keep positive.

We are all in the same boat and this virus has reminded us that we will only get through this together. If we stay calm, stay home and care for one another we will get to ride that next wave and ski or snowboard that next line. I’ve never felt more grateful for friends, family and this beautiful planet of ours and to be home where I can hear magpies in the morning.

Thanks to Clippership RV and Black Ops Heli Skiing. And thank you Alaska. We will be back, and will bring friends!

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