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A sea otter takes a break to clean himself and enjoy the scenery in the harbor of his majestic hometown. Photo: Ian Bolliger

A sea otter takes a break to clean himself and enjoy the scenery in the harbor of his majestic hometown. Photo: Ian Bolliger


The Inertia

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to ski the lines of my dreams. If you have ever arced a powder turn or even watched a ski movie, you’ve probably heard of Valdez. (If not, you’ve definitely heard of the Exxon Valdez, the tanker that spilled about 30 million gallons of oil in Prince William Sound in the late eighties.) Nestled in the spectacular Chugach Range in southern Alaska, the city is home to pockets of the most skiable terrain in the world.

Before I ever visited, I pictured Valdez as a pseudo-mythical place, accessible only to the super wealthy. They would fly in on private jets, deplaning to gold-plated platters of caviar before hopping into a helicopter to whiz them up to the top of their gated log mccabins atop private mountains. While that isn’t an entirely incorrect perspective, what I have since learned is that it is most certainly not the only option. And that is what I’m here to say: if you don’t have $1200 to drop on a day of skiing, don’t fret. The Chugach Mountains are not only filled with the echoes of whirring helicopter blades, but with swishing climbing skins as well.

Hence, a brief report from an equally brief jaunt to Valdez.

The public boat launch in Barrow, Alaska. Yeah, it’s that cold there. Photo: Ian Bolliger

The public boat launch in Barrow, Alaska. Yeah, it’s that cold there. Photo: Ian Bolliger

How We Got There

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This past week was spring break for me. (I am a grad student.) Free and temporarily at ease with my school-bound responsibilities, I headed off to Barrow, Alaska* to help with maintenance of some instruments at a field site. A good friend and ski partner of mine also happened to be in Valdez for six weeks on a medical school rotation, so I took the opportunity to make a side trip during my journey north. I flew into Anchorage, met up with a couple friends of his, and we all made the five-hour drive out to Valdez.

Fully loaded, we of course brought only the essentials on the drive from Anchorage to Valdez. Photo: Ian Bolliger

Fully loaded, we of course brought only the essentials on the drive from Anchorage to Valdez. Photo: Ian Bolliger

If you’re able to find some friends to join you, I highly recommend making the drive to Valdez rather than trying to catch a flight. Those flights are often as expensive as the flight to Anchorage, and the drive itself is beautiful, with stunning views of the Matanuska Glacier, as well as the Chugach and Wrangell Ranges.

*A quick note before I proceed: Barrow is a CRAZY place that is worth a trip in and of itself — but that is a story for another time.

View of the Matanuska Glacier from the Richardson Highway. Photo: Ian Bolliger

View of the Matanuska Glacier from the Richardson Highway. Photo: Ian Bolliger

Where We Stayed & Ate

It seems like the only reasonable option in town is the Best Western. We were able to house three guys for about $100 a night, including a significant breakfast. Considering the location and the fact that most of the guests were there for heli-skiing, that didn’t seem bad at all. There are also several bars/restaurants in town to grab cheap(ish) eats, and the food at a handful of lodges up in Thompson Pass isn’t too pricey either.

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After a beautiful climb up, the skiing did not disappoint. Photo: Spencer James

After a beautiful climb up, the skiing did not disappoint. Photo: Spencer James

What We Skied

Despite being there for what were likely average conditions, I had the best weekend of skiing of my life. Though it hadn’t snowed in over a week and the heli-skiers had torn up many of the most convenient lines, there were plenty of untracked turns to be had.

The crew enjoys some refreshments on the summit of cracked ice. The peaks in the background are what locals affectionately refer to as the “far-far gnar-gnar”. Photo: Spencer James

The crew enjoys some refreshments on the summit of cracked ice. The peaks in the background are what locals affectionately refer to as the “far-far gnar-gnar”. Photo: Spencer James

The first day, we toured up a peak known as Cracked Ice. Given the few gaping crevasses that we encountered, I can only imagine that this mountain earns its name each summer. While most of the mountain had been hit hard by the heli and snowmachine crowds, there was still plenty of snow to be had. After some wide-open bowl skiing up top, the terrain transitioned to a backcountry freestyle playground, with natural quarter-pipes, small kickers, and spines to keep even the most hardcore park-rat happy. Skiing down through this playful section, checking out the infinite sea of snowy mountains stretching out in all directions, none of us could control the ridiculous smiles that repeatedly crept onto our faces.

On our second day we skied “Cat Ears”. It’s the chute third from right, with the cat ear-looking rocks at the top. Photo: Ian Bolliger

On our second day we skied “Cat Ears”. It’s the chute third from right, with the cat ear-looking rocks at the top. Photo: Ian Bolliger

On the second day, we got some tips from a friend of mine working as an apprentice guide and headed out toward the “Promised Land” (their name, not mine I swear). We skied two couloirs, the second of which being the longest and most picturesque I’ve ever been down. I captured some of the day’s adventures on my GoPro, so take a look to glimpse a small snippet of what’s out there in the Chugach.

Skiing down to the car, we again were struck with the same awe that had captured us the day before. How can skiing this good exist right off the road?

 

 

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We were admiring the scenery on our last day in the Chugach when we heard the loud rip and pop of a parachute opening and saw this speed flier coasting to a stop in the neighboring parking lot. That’s Valdez for you… Photo: Spencer James

We were admiring the scenery on our last day in the Chugach when we heard the loud rip and pop of a parachute opening and saw this speed flier coasting to a stop in the neighboring parking lot. That’s Valdez for you… Photo: Spencer James

As you drive down the road through Thompson Pass, you see ski and snow-machine tracks everywhere you look. See an interesting line? Pull the car over, strap on your boards, and get moving!

This ease of access to amazing skiing is really what makes this place so special. Whether it iis by helicopter, snowcat, snowmachine of your choosing, or good ol’ fashioned leg-power, you are able to get to more steep, technical skiing in a day’s time than just about anywhere else. If you are a backcountry skier with a hankering for skiing steep powdery lines in picturesque locations, Valdez needs to be on your radar. While simply getting to Anchorage is undeniably costly and provides a sizable barrier, once you’re there it is totally possible to get into the Chugach on a tight budget.

Simply live by these basic rules: drive instead of fly; stay cheap; and skip the heli-operations. You won’t regret it.

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