By Matt Park, FOW
Italy's boot on the Pika Glacier, AK. FOW: Sarah Park // Photo: Matt Park (@thebuslife)
There is great appeal in being adaptable, especially when unpredictability is introduced. People who are adaptable in the workplace are more likely to succeed, animals that are more adaptable to a changing climate are more likely to survive, and skis that are more adaptable to different conditions are more likely to be skied.
During my spring, I spent 10 days in the North Cascades for an advanced ski guides training through the American Mountain Guides Association, came back to Utah to guide a 4 day ski mountaineering camp and then headed up to Alaska for a ski trip with my wife to a glacier in the Alaska range. I saw a lot of different terrain, conditions, and weather. On every one of those trips we were constantly adjusting our plans to meet the conditions.
I skied the Vital every day on these trips. Its ability to ski such a wide range of conditions so well is mindblowing. // Photo: Matt Park (@thebuslife)
My journey began at Snoqualmie pass in Washington. The biggest shock to me was how steep the terrain and skin tracks in the area were. I have heard other guides call the Wasatch the land of the steep skin track but Washington blew that out of the water. We were regularly skinning up 35°+! After skiing and guiding in a very tricky and dangerous snow-pack in Utah all winter this was a huge shift for me. A very abrupt introduction to a maritime snowpack.
We made the best of the conditions we had at Snoqualmie. For the most part we did pretty well finding good snow. One day, we had planned to practice steep ski guiding techniques like rappelling into a couloir and belaying skiers in steep terrain. We chose to ski the Slot and Snot couloirs on Snoqualmie Mountain. Both feature difficult entrances that are facilitated by either a rappel in on skis, or cautiously skiing in while on belay.
We skied the Snot couloir first; it has a 60° entrance and then mellows out to 45°-50°. The couloir isn’t super long, and the slope angle is not constant, but continues to mellow out as you ski down. The snow in the couloir was firm, but punchy enough to get a good edge with just a dust of fine fresh snow on top.
The Slot couloir was a totally different story. Easier entrance but 1000’ long of sustained 50° skiing. The snow was much firmer than the snot had been. Instead we had that fine dusting of snow on top of solid ice. I was the 5th to ski it so any snow that had been there was scraped off by the 4 people to ski ahead of me. My ears actually hurt from the sound of my own skis scraping the ice and bouncing off the couloirs high rock walls.
Snoqualmie, WA. Photo: Matt Park (@thebuslife)
The weather warmed up after that day and we were able to get good corn skiing for the remainder of our time at the pass before moving up to the Mt. Baker area where we had completely different conditions. It dumped snow for 2 days and we skied lower angle terrain in the trees, shamelessly indulging our inner powder pigs. The storm cleared out on our third and final day, so we decided to have a go at Kulshan (Mount Baker).
Low angle pow skiing at its finest. Cascade Range, WA. Photo: Matt Park (@thebuslife)
We had amazing conditions. Easy trail breaking, and boot-top pow from top (10,786’) to bottom. It was a long and glorious day starting out with headlamps and ending just before sunset after 20 miles and 9,750’ of skiing. Our instructors and some of the students that were from the area and were very familiar with skiing the mountain said it was the best they ever had it.
Summit of Kulshan, WA. Photo: Matt Park (@thebuslife)
I spent two days driving back to Utah and barely had time to wax my skis and say hi to my wife before getting on a snow machine and sledding 25 miles into a camp in the Uinta mountains to teach at a ski mountaineering and steep skiing camp. This is a camp for experienced/expert skiers and our objective is to meet people where they’re at with their steep skiing and rope work skills. Our goal is to help them to ski with more confidence and also know when and how to use a rope for a belay or rappel.
We were thrown a huge curveball when a small storm that was predicted to leave us with 5” of new snow over-delivered, and gave us 22” of super light snow in 36 hours. Most skiers would never complain about that, but we were there to ski steep terrain which we could no longer safely access. We were able to come up with a good mix of fun powder skiing and simulations/clinics on steep skiing, rope use and anchoring techniques and principles.
Not gonna lie, I was jealous of the Intention 110 on this trip. Uinta Range, UT. Photo: Matt Park (@thebuslife)
Two days at home and we were off to Alaska for an 8 day ski trip to the Pika glacier in the Alaska range. This would be Sarah’s first trip to Alaska and her first time skiing on a glacier. She had been ski patrolling all winter, so we planned this trip to Alaska for the day after she was done closing down the ski resort for the season.
Base camp skiing in AK is the best! All you have to do is drag gear 100 feet from the plane and make camp. FOW: Matt Park // Photo: Sarah Park (@thebuslife)
You never know what you’re going to get when you plan a ski trip that far in advance. As far as the conditions go, we didn't nail it. The previous week it had snowed a lot, and there had been about 35 people on the Pika that did nail it. They skied everything. It had warmed up considerably a few days before we got to the glacier so any aspect that got sun at all had a crust and everything else had old hard tracks. We had a great time hanging out on the glacier in the sunny warm weather, practicing crevasse rescue, and making the most of the skiing we could find.
Best snow we found was a couple miles down glacier from our camp, on a run called Italy's Boot. Pika Glacier, AK. FOW: Matt Park // Photo: Sarah Park (@thebuslife)
No matter the conditions, skiing in Alaska is pretty amazing. Pika Glacier, AK. FOW: Matt Park // Photo: Sarah Park (@thebuslife)
We cut our 8 day trip in half and decided to find some corn outside the Alaska range in Hatcher Pass. It felt a lot like Little Cottonwood Canyon here in the Wasatch. Drive up, look around, see what you want to ski, and walk up it. We skied some amazing late season corn there. We found a little cabin Airbnb that had a wood fire sauna that made for the perfect combo; sleep in, catch the corn harvest, come home to sauna and eat, repeat.
Large grain corn makes me smile too. Hatcher Pass, AK. FOW: Sarah Park // Photo Matt Park (@thebuslife)
It was a great way to cap off a very long season of skiing for both Sarah and me. It was also a great lesson in being adaptable. I started each of these trips with a good plan and made adjustments when needed.
Change is the only constant we will ever know, but most of us will do all that we can to avoid it. This quote and the book it’s from have been a big help to me in the chaos of the past year:
These words are a very simple truth. You do not have to believe in a god or any religion to understand. You just have to have lived long enough and this will be self-evident.
Our climate is changing, and for many of us, that means that skiing as we know it might not exist in 20 or 30 years. I expect that by that time we will have more to worry about than our loss of skiing, but it still makes one think. How can we try to hang on to what we have and direct change in our favor? No one ever said that we cannot influence the changes in our lives. Is it possible to hang onto something familiar while preparing for a future so unfamiliar?
Have a plan, stick to that plan, if you need to, change the plan. We call that rigid flexibility. Having a good plan is super important, but if things change enough, the best laid plan can end up being the worst thing you could do. Having checkpoints to reevaluate the conditions and plan are essential. Whether it’s an expedition ski trip, a simple ski tour, or just life. Having a plan and being rigidly flexible is the best way I know of to deal with changing conditions.
- Matt Park, FOW