There were many inspirations for this expedition, but first and foremost was a trip up to the Wrangell-St.Elias Mountains the year before which redefined my idea of mountains. As a skier visiting this area for the first time, it is like a sailor going from his local lake to the Pacific Ocean-the scale is too vast to comprehend and it makes other mountain ranges almost seem irrelevant. Once you have skied there, you have to go back.
Another inspiration is that aside from endless mountains, the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve (WSE NPP) also has some of the largest icefields in North America, which make for great kiteskiing. Unlike glaciers which are steeper and thus more crevassed, an icefield is more like a frozen reservoir of ice. There are a few cracks here and there, but for the most part, icefields can be safely navigated at high speed using a kite or in poor visibility, which is a huge safety factor.
Over the past six years, the idea of using kites to access skiable terrain has grown on me as it helps eliminate a major drawback of skiing expeditions, namely immobility due to the massive amounts of weight you need to camp, ski, climb, eat and stay warm. A one-hundred pound load is fairly common for trips like this, which if you are hauling it (perish the thought) means you are limited to about five miles per day of travel by the time you break camp, move and set camp back up again. In contrast, people have traveled 275 miles in a single 24-hour period using kites while dragging heavy loads, which opens up vast new opportunities to access remote, skiable terrain. Another aspect of a kiting/skiing trip which appeals to me is the idea of spreading out your objectives and exploring multiple peaks instead of risking it all on a single objective. And then again, kite skiing is just fun in itself.
The open-ended concept of this trip was to get dropped off on the Bagley Icefield just below Mt. St. Elias right on the US-Canadian border (no customs hassles), then kite west down the Bagley as far as time allowed, skiing peaks along the way and then use a satellite phone to call in our coordinates for a plane pick-up. For the most part, this is what happened, although like most expeditions, it had its share of surprises.
After flying into Anchorage, Ben Ditto and I rented a car and made the five hour drive to the end-of-the-road town of Chitina where we met Lorne Glick and Armond DuBuque who had driven up from Skagway. We met up at the Ultima Thule gear shed where we ended up staying for two days while the weather cleared enough for Paul Claus to fly in and take up 75 miles back up the Chitina River to their family lodge. In a stroke of good fortune, the lodge is a five-acre private in-holding which was grandfathered in when the area officially became a National Park & Preserve. It is only accessible by plane (or a very miserable multiday walk), which is fortunate as three generations of the Claus family are experienced pilots, to say the least.
After a day at the lodge, Paul shuttled us out to the Bagley and dropped us off in the shadow of the 18,008′ Mt. Saint Elias, the second tallest peak in North America where we set up Camp 1. The next day was spent kiting and scouting, including finding a possible ski descent line off of Mt. Huxley. After an early start the next morning, we arrived at the business end of the Mt. Huxley climb/ski and three of us decided to pass on it, much to Lorne’s chagrin. As an alternative, we continued up “The Hump” which is a popular access peak to Mt. St. Elias, and an excellent 6,820′ ski descent.
The next day we were able to move camp under kite power, which is a sure way to spoil yourself as you will never want to hump loads again on foot. We made it about three miles before the wind shut down, but it was enough to refresh our skiing objectives for a few days and we were able to ski some nearby peaks, including a beauty which we retreated off of due to avalanche danger.
A day later, with no wind, we tromped another three miles down the icefield and set up Camp 3. After we all skied a nice little pyramid peak in the morning, Lorne and Armond, who were both experienced kiters with large kites, were able to have an excellent light-air afternoon session and put in many, many miles. Praying for a windy travel day soon, perhaps we prayed too hard…
The next day started out with light, swirly winds, but once we hooked into the main flow, it was an exciting ride. Three of us were on Ozone kites and within half an hour I was getting lifted in the air, slammed sideways and had lost sight of everyone else. Then the visibility shut down. After regrouping and downsizing our kites (from a 12m Manta to an 8m Access for me), we set off again and went 12.8 miles until the kites mysteriously fluttered, backed around and dropped to the ground in a dead calm. I guess it was time to set up Camp 4.
After skiing a nearby peak the next day, we returned to camp and a steadily increasing snow storm. By sunset, the winds were steady at 35mph with gusts on top of that and it was snowing heavily. We battened down the tents, crawled in and hoped everything would survive the night, and aside from a few items getting buried, most of it did.
With wind and new snow, hopes were high for pumping out some kiting mileage the next day. What none of us anticipated was that the new snow was going to be the consistency of glue, and although we were fairly well powered up on our kites, it was like dragging cement boat anchors behind you to go anywhere! With literally hundreds of pounds of resistance, each power-stroke of the kite only moved us a few feet forward before the sled augured in and came to a stop. Mine had so much resistance it ended up snapping my shock absorber bungee cord and leaving a trench which looked like the San Andreas Fault behind me. More wind would have been nice, but instead it shut down again and put us out of our slow-motion misery in time to set up our final camp, number 5.
Being a maritime snowpack close to the ocean, the snow consolidated by the next day enough for Lorne and Armond to hook into some light winds with their big kites and go out for a long day of kite touring. Ben and I were shut down on the kiting due to our smaller kites and spastic foil flying skills, so instead we skied a nearby peak, took some photo and made it back to camp just as we had a visit from Paul Claus and his son Jay. Paul was heading down to Georgia and said we could either fly out with him in a few hours, or take our chances with a later pick-up and the weather. We had traveled a less than stunning 40 miles down the icefield (with many, many more miles to go), so we decided to call it quits and head back with him.
We may have been cursed with weather that was almost too good (clear, sunny and calm for the most part), but the Bagley didn’t seem like an overly windy zone compared to Patagonia, Baffin Island or Antarctica. However, what it may have lacked in wind during our trip, it more than made up for with scenery!
The flight back to Chitina was uneventful. Once we arrived, we said our thanks and goodbyes to Paul and Donna Claus, then in turn to Lorne and Armond who were driving back to Skagway. Ben and I kept the comical Dodge (low) Caliper rental car for another week and went over to nearby Thompson Pass for a dose of Valdez skiing action.
Like almost any trip to Alaska, it wasn’t quite what we had anticipated, but the people we met and experiences we had along the way made it a classic adventure in the wilds of AK.
Andrew McLean, May 2008
Article: Bagley Icefield Expedition 2008 including Pictures