Ski touring by ski plane in Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park last spring with fellow guides Andrew McLean and Eli Potter, we were repeatedly having problems with our guide radios (complicated handheld VHFs). Guides typically need what is basically a ham radio to be able to talk with pilots, other guides, rangers, etc. These are powerful tools but they come with a steep learning curve. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in the presence of malfunctioning radios, transmission issues, technical glitches, antennae problems, user error, etc.
As a backup on this trip I brought a couple of BCA’s BC Link radios and we put them into action.
The BC Link looks like any other small handheld radio with a speaker mic. On closer inspection, you realize the speaker mic controls the radio completely. In addition to transmit and receive, you can change channels, adjust volume, turn the radio on and off, and check battery power. This design allows the body of the radio to live in your backpack all day long, with the speaker mic clipped to your pack shoulder strap.
BC Links operate on the FRS/GMRS (talkabout) frequencies – this keeps things simple and license free, but in high traffic zones finding a clear channel can sometimes be tricky (the sub channels help). This wasn’t an issue in the Wrangells. As soon as we started using the BC Links our radio woes vanished, as did our awareness that we were using radios. We were simply communicating clearly in complex terrain.
A month later on a ski expedition to Mt. Blackburn, BC Links provided easy conversations between the summit ridge and base camp. The radios are USB rechargeable which integrates perfectly with a solar panel, and we were impressed with the battery life of these things (up to 140 hours according to BCA).
For guides, the BC Link won’t replace the complicated guide VHF. But for everyone else, the BC Link is a superior tool for distraction free backcountry group communication.
Jack and I went up to the Lake Angeles cirque today to check on the ice situation. As this was a scouting mission, we almost didn’t bring gear with us which would have been a terrible decision. Despite our late start we managed to get in a few laps. Super awesome to be climbing ice in the Olympics in mid November.
Lake was not trustworthy yet but skirting the edge was not too bad. Temps appear to be getting warmer for the next few days but with the next good freeze it should be good up there.
At 18,510′ feet, Mt. Elbrus is the highest mountain in Europe, and one of the Seven Summits. Situated in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia, this trip combines high altitude ski mountaineering with a heavy dose of Russian culture. The 13 day itinerary starts in Moscow and finishes in St. Petersberg, with ample time for measured acclimatization, skiing time, a 2 day summit window, and city tours. Similar to our Chile Volcanoes Ski Mountaineering Expedition, this program is offered in partnership with RMI Expeditions. 13 days, June 2015.
Learn more: Mt. Elbrus Ski ExpeditionSkiing on the Antarctic Peninsula is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Starting in Ushuaia, Argentina, this trip involves loading your ski gear onto a 331′ ship called the Sea Adventurer, and setting sail across the Drake Passage. Three days later you’re skiing above the ocean on surreal ice clad islands and peaks, shuttling to and from the ship by zodiac. In addition to the skiing, is the fact you’re in Antarctica, in a world of icebergs, penguins, elephant seals, orcas, and killer whales. This 13 day voyage is offered in November 2015 in partnership with Ice Axe Expeditions.
Learn more: Antarctic Peninsula Ship-Based Ski Touring
We just returned from a very fun and successful Chile Volcanoes ski trip. Weather conditions were a little tricky with El Niño bringing a particularly wet winter and spring to South America. For us this meant standing on fewer of the summits in our ambitious itinerary, but it also meant excellent snow coverage and even September powder skiing! Hard to complain, really. We’re already looking forward to next year.
Photos (all of the best ones on this page were taken by Katy) and Dispatches from Chile 2014:
SEPT 22, 2014: WARM UP DAY on VOLCAN VILLARICA
Our goal for today was to have skis on our feet, and driving through the lush lowlands in the rain, there was a sense of disbelief circulating through the van that we would soon see snow, let alone be skiing. Next thing we knew, with Sergio at the helm (our Chilean outfitter) we were fully utilizing the Mitsubishi’s 4-wheel drive capabilities to precision glide past stuck vehicles on the steep access road. High snowfall intensity from the sky, high psych intensity from our crew.
We spent the afternoon Volcano Storm Skiing. Not to be confused with below treeline storm skiing, where the forest provides terrain definition and the ability to see; Volcano Storm Skiing involves using rocks, closed chairlifts, other skiers, and/or their tracks for definition. When in doubt, have someone else go first. If your hat says ‘Guide’ on it, that means you are the sacrificial lamb.
Get blasted by the wind on the way up, seek refuge in a closed lift station high on the mountain, look up at your teammates and see huge smiles, transition to ski mode. Random outbursts of laughter. Volcano Storm Skiing is awesome. Especially the part about skiing in September.
SEPT 23, 2014: VILLARICA: ANOTHER STORM DAY
We got a casual start on our day knowing that the storm was raging on Villarica. That summiting was not going to be an option for today was glaringly obvious in the forecast, but the skiers mind is slightly different from the climbers mind: stormy conditions yield a bunch of new snow, and a bunch of new snow equals powder skiing. Powder skiing equals the polar opposite of defeat. So like yesterday, we set off into the storm, the only skiers on this mountain crazy enough to go touring (the ski areas on these Chilean volcanoes are above treeline, thus relying on good visibility and not too much wind to stay open).
Yesterday was Volcano Storm Skiing. Today was just plain storm skiing. We stuck below treeline for most of the day and found some great tree shots. With over a foot of new, dense, fast, springy pow, we put in a skin track, and one lap turned into two laps, then three laps, four laps, five laps… To be skiing in an early succession forest with a cauldron of lava bubbling 5,000’ above your head feels exotic.
At the end of the day we toured up into the storm to get a sense of how windy it really was in the alpine (and to line ourselves up for a nice glide back to the parking lot). It was windy. Really windy.
SEPT 25, 2014: VOLCAN LONQUIMAYFirst summit of the trip! We may or may not have had a slight mechanical advantage on the approach this morning (chairlift) to Volcan Lonquimay. We were teased with beautiful views of the mountain, although the wind was clearly howling up high. The visibility started to deteriorate as we climbed high above the ski area.
We transitioned from skins to boot crampons where the broad terrain gives way to a semi-sharp ridge, and we climbed up and up into the clouds. The wind came in waves with periods of eerie calm in between.
We climbed until we could climb no further, enjoyed some nice celebratory summit time, and clicked into our skis. The upper mountain required careful turns in the limited visibility, but 3,000’ lower we were able to finally open it up and just ski.
The lifts were still spinning after our huge descent, so we snuck in a few extra laps at the ski area before heading for the lodge for chocolate caliente and cervezas. Lonquimay!SEPT 26, 2014: SIERRA NEVADA
We didn’t take Sergio seriously when he said “I have a snowcat”. We were discussing the approach to Sierra Nevada, which would typically involve four-wheel drive pickups to get to where the snow starts. As our Chilean outfitter and local guru, Sergio has been with us the whole trip, and here in Malalcahuello we are staying at his ideally positioned lodge, the SuizAndina.
It turns out Sergio has two mini snowcat-like vehicles he recently acquired, and he was psyched to give one of them a try in getting us to Sierra Nevada. If all went well, it seemed possible that we’d found a loophole in the “No Shortcuts to the Top” argument. The mini snowcat would deliver us to treeline, we could spend more time touring in the alpine, and maybe get a few bonus turns at the end of the day.
Apparently the universe is on Ed Viesturs’ side. Before we even hit the snow, the mini snowcat had lost one of its tracks. These are the moments where us skiers start to panic internally. Will we make it to the snow? Will we ski today?
With one track down and Sergio at the helm, the mini snowcat still performed amazingly well in getting us up the gnarly road. When we hit the snow, it was time to earn our turns.
We ascended through mysterious Araucaria forest (monkey puzzle trees) and out on to a long alpine ridge. Cornice on one side, rocks on the other. The terrain became particularly interesting on the upper mountain, with a series of intersecting ridges, alpine bowls, and mushroomy ice features. The weather was perfect, the views endless, and we were able to ski from the highest point beneath the summit (the last 50’ was steep rime ice).
Sierra Nevada is one of those descents that just goes on forever. Photos tell the story better than words.
Chilean ski adventure to the max.
We launched for the north side of Volcan Llaima with overnight gear, optimism, and our fuel tanks filled to the brim with carne. Our send off from Malalcahuello was the asado of all asados: Chilean grass fed beef, homemade sausages, and lamb slow cooked over a wood fired grill masterfully by Sergio (our Chilean outfitter and owner of the lodge in Malalcahuello).
The wind was steady and the views nonexistent as we toured up an expansive lava field that just five years ago was flowing red. Above the monkey puzzle trees the wind was whipping, and feeling energetic we opted for the storm camping experience. We carved tent platforms into the leeward side of a small rock outcrop and proceeded to build Alaska style wind walls around our camp.
The next morning was frigid. The sun came out and as we packed up our gear for the summit ascent, we had the feeling that everything was lining up. Almost. The nice springlike snow surface we’d skinned up the day before was now a skating rink. Our ski crampons, even under full body weight, were not biting into the ice. This was not the type of frozen snow that softens throughout the day.
About 600 vertical feet above camp it became apparent that the snow wasn’t getting any better. Getting on the face above us – which Katy and I had learned the year before is deceptively enormous and quite steep at the top, was out of the question.
We ripped our skins and skied east coast style “packed powder” (very loud turns) 1,000’ down to a small sub peak to the east. Views across the way of Sierra Nevada rising above the beautiful Lago Conguillio (a huge lake) began to the open up. We cramponed to the summit of our mini peak, skied down, and as we contoured back to camp, the decision not to go higher on Llaima was further reinforced. The winds ramped up, and visibility dropped to ping-pong ball status. We packed up camp and skied down out of the clouds.
Overused statement of the trip, uttered multiple times at the end of every ski day: “Well that was an adventure.”
This is a truly amazing place to have skis on your feet.
Sound interesting? Learn more about this trip here.
I just returned from an amazing 6 days on the Bailey Range Traverse along with Ross from Montreal. An additional member of our crew unfortunately had to bail at the last minute due to illness, but hopefully will be back to experience one of the best alpine traverses in North America.
We started at the Sol Duc trailhead, ascending into the alpine past Heart Lake, up onto the High Divide. We shared a camp perched above a terrain feature called the Catwalk with a volunteer ranger and a family of goats.
The next day we crossed the Catwalk and passed through a camp known as “Boston Charlie’s” as we ascended onto the west shoulder of Mt. Carrie. Rather than follow the standard route from here which consists of sidehilling beneath Mt. Carrie, we took the high line over the summit.
From the summit of Mt. Carrie we descended east on a glaciated ridge feature formed by years and years of consistent wind patterns, passing beneath Mt. Ruth, and up a steep headwall that in a good snow year would typically involve steep snow climbing in early August. This year it was melted down to glacier ice.
Anticipating this section, I was psyched to have brought along a 19cm ice screw which came in handy for drilling V-thread anchors. 3 short pitches (30m) of 45° ice and snow put us on the lower angled glacier above, where we popped through a notch in the ridge.
From the notch, we had a beautiful descent into the Stephen Lake basin, where stopping for a swim in the lake was very tempting on this hot day.
We contoured around the basin, ascending 1200′ of steep snow and scree to the ridge, where we were able to set up our tent a couple hundred feet beneath the summit of Stephen Peak.
The next day we cruised on the ridgeline from Stephen Peak to Upper Ferry Basin with the occasional sections of scrambly bushwhacking. In Upper Ferry Basin we ascended past many beautiful lakes and tarns to the true crest of the Bailey Range, passing beneath Mt. Ferry and Mt. Pulitzer.
From Mt. Ferry to Queets Basin is one of the most fun and awe-inspiring sections of the traverse. The views are dramatic and constantly evolving. Travel for the most part is straightforward, following the ridge crest, with sections of steep snow and glacier travel mixed in.
Beyond Bear Pass we dropped into Upper Queets Basin and set up camp in a killer location next to a beautiful alpine tarn.
That evening provided one of the best sunsets of the trip.
Day four is one of the navigation and sanity cruxes of the route involving a contour to the base of the Humes Glacier, through steep, densely vegetated terrain, avalanche paths choked with slide alder and downed trees, and game trails that appear and disappear without warning.
Once on the Humes Glacier it was easy climbing to Blizzard Pass.
A steep descent to Camp Pan, and we were comfortably situated on the Mt. Olympus Massif, in one of the more dramatic camp locations in Olympic National Park.
The next morning we dropped to the Hoh Glacier, ascended through Glacier Pass, down the mighty Blue Glacier, and onto the lateral moraine.
We spent our last night along the Hoh River and had our car shuttle ride waiting for us at the Hoh Visitor Center on day 6 (thanks Dave!).
- Aesthetic Lines. The ski descents themselves are even more impressive than the summits.
- The Country. Chile is a land of otherworldly landscapes, interesting culture, and incredibly friendly people.
- The Corn. There’s something about Southern Hemisphere corn that’s extra buttery (corn snow that is).
- Light Backpacks. Most international expeditions involve hauling heavy loads. Not really the case on this trip. Three out of four of these peaks we ski with day packs.
- The Proximity. The relative spacing of these four mountains could not be more perfect. Less car time, more skiing.
- 4 Volcanoes in 10 Days. Many expeditions are lucky to climb one mountain in 10 days.
- Young Volcanoes. Villarica’s summit crater is a boiling cauldron. Llaima last erupted in…2009!
- Araucarias (Monkey Puzzle Trees). Combined with the volcanic lunar landscapes, these add to the prehistoric nature of the subalpine landscapes, and you get the sensation you might run into dinosaurs at any moment.
- Pisco Sours. The perfect cap on any ski day.
- The Timing. September is an amazing time to be skiing, and a healthy dose does wonders for your patience level, awaiting the Northern Hemisphere winter.
We still have a few spots left on our Sept 20-Oct 1, 2014 program. Learn more here: Chile Volcanoes Ski Mountaineering Expedition
The NW Couloir on Mt. Johnson in The Needles first caught my eye three years ago from the Hurricane Ridge to Deer Park Traverse. With the level of certainty that a distant grainy photo has to offer, combined with a rapidly melting snowpack, expectations were low. My better half thought she might be getting sick on the approach which was confirmed by the next morning. So she kept it chill.It’s about an 800′ descent off the back of the col at the head of Surprise Basin, and a quick skin around the corner puts you at the base of the line. Looking up from the bottom it didn’t look obvious. Snow conditions were firm and aluminum crampons and a piolet were quite handy. Lots of front pointing later I was at the top of this amazing 1,200′ foot line. Two short sections would require down climbing due to a rapidly melting snowpack, but not much more coverage is needed for it to go cleanly.
The next morning I cruised to the summit of Mt. Deception via the NE Chute and was dropping in by 8:30am. The line was in bad shape with a monster garbage runnel down the middle (a 10′ foot deep trench) but still seemed skiable along the edge with a little precision required in the choke.
Partway down the upper section, into view came another party of skiers from Seattle and Portland booting up. I was surprised I hadn’t heard any yelling or cursing from them as I sent down wet sluff on the upper turns. Lucky timing. I assumed they’d gone up the normal route.
I hit the pause button my descent to let them cruise by. Out of the chute, the rest of the face provided great turns along the skiers right side.
Currently the trail into Royal Basin is pretty much snow free cruising in tennis shoes to the Lower Meadow. Things are melting fast up there but there’s definitely another couple weeks of spring skiing to be had.