Thursday, April 4, 2013

From Sea to Summit and Back Again

From Sea to Summit and Back Again

An adventurous tale of sea kayaking and ski mountaineering in Alaska’a Kenai Fjords

all words and photos by Killian Sump unless otherwise noted

        It was early June. I was returning to Aialik Bay for the third summer in a row, standing on the bow deck of the Weather or Knot, a water taxi out based out of Seward, Alaska. The boat fled Resurrection Bay, passed the wide Bear Glacier, and worked out way around the cape alongside granite cliffs and hundreds of seabirds, bouncing with the rolling sea as the captain Brent made his way into the next fjord. As we rounded the bend and headed into Aialik, an impressive bay system composed of towering peaks, islands, rainforest, and tidewater glaciers, something stood out to me that was quite different than the years previous: There was So. Much.  Snow. The banks of the sea was stacked with three to four feet of corn snow, and the mountains were filled in, white against the blue sky, with clear lines up peaks that I had previously never imagined climbing due to the loose composition of the slate rock. To say the least, I was ecstatic. I was here as a sea kayaking guide, and I was starting work for the lodge tomorrow, but all that was on my mind was when I’d have the weather and time off to get out into the mountains. The Kenai Fjords are wet place, characterized by shrouds of mist and constant light rainfall, averaging about 50 inches of rain in the summer months alone; I was praying for high pressure.

photo cred: Acacia Johnson (check out for her work)
        It was June 21st. Geoff and I had our kayaks ready on the cobblestone beach, loaded with climbing and skiing gear, as we said our goodbyes to friends and family who had been celebrating the summer solstice around the campfire in the tidal flats. Our minds were elsewhere. It was 1:30 am, and we had just awoke from an evening nap in preparation for what was to come, opting out of the group festivities and taking rest in our cabins, with feelings of excitement and nervousness for what we had planned. The weather was perfect – not a cloud in the sky, not even a breeze went by as we stared out at the peak. We pushed off the shore, and started paddling up the fjord, gliding through smooth and glassy water in the early morning light, intent on our mission. 

        “We’ve been looking up at this mountain for years,” I said, “Can you believe today’s the day?” “I know, this is perfect”, Geoff responded knowingly. We keep paddling towards the peak, heading for the base, a small boulder-y beach about five miles off in the distance. This is the largest peak on the Aialik Peninsula, a majestic 3,768’ mountain that towers over the rest with a noble stature. A massive buttress builds up to a large glacial bowl, with one steep and long couloir that rises up to the upper face of the peak, which sits just below the corniced summit fin. Addison is an elegant peak, one that we were hoping to climb and ski in its entirety; a long day trip. An hour and a half later, we landed our kayaks and on the beach and started unloading gear. A calm morning paddle is the perfect meditative way to prepare for a day in the mountains. Aialik glacier rumbled behind us, adding to the ominous atmosphere as we prepared ourselves for the climb. It was humbling. I felt intense, but good about everything so far. We set our boats a little way into the brush and started skinning through the leaf-less alders and devils club, getting above tree line fairly quickly.

        As we tour into the alpine and towards the main saddle, Geoff yells, “There are ice-worms everywhere, this is insane!” Sure enough, we found ourselves faced with a peculiar phenomenon: Thousands of ice worms, crawling about on the snow in the flats before the saddle climb; everywhere we looked, the tiny black worms were squirming around. We cruised along worm infested snow for a few hundred meters, but they dissipated as the slope steepened. We worked our way to the top of the first saddle, where some wildflowers greeted us as we rested for a few minutes and took in the view of the bay. Mt. Addison, the massive peak above the Pederson Lagoon that acts as a border for the Harding Icefield, and the wide face of the Aialik glacier were painted pink-orange with the morning glow, reflecting completely on the still surface of the fjord. The air is calm, and it is quiet up here. Geoff and I exchange looks of awe, turning to observe what lie ahead for us. We were going to climb the north ridge from the saddle, a steep rocky ridge laden with wildflowers and grasses, before descending into the backside bowl at the base of the main couloir. 

        We stared up into the steep, long couloir and began attaching our crampons to our boots. I pulled my ice axe and helmet off my pack, grinning with the thought of skiing the line. We started booting up the couloir, step by step, Geoff leading. After moving for five minutes, it didn’t seem like we were going anywhere - that’s when the vastness of this mountain really set in for me. As it got steeper, we quickly rose in elevation, sending the mountainous elevator of snow. There were entrenched gunnels in the middle of the double-fall-line ramp, evidence of many days of melt and small wet slides. Rocks littered the snow alongside the cliff walls – a summer-time weathered-out pack of rotten corn snow. But it works. We were aiming to climb the whole peak while still in the shade of morning. After an hour, we were two thirds of the way up, peering out from the route towards the open ocean to the south. Low-lying fog was beginning to sweep in from the Pacific, covering the water, shores, and forests of much of the fjord with a thick white blanket. We moved in a rhythm, the sounds of our boots kicking steps and the sliding and punching of our ice axes creating a sort of alpine music in the surrounding empty air space.  The great thing about ski-mountaineering is the whole way up, you’re inspecting the ski route and imagining what it’s going to be like to be on it for the descent, constantly scouting for the best places to arch your turns and make the most of the terrain – a long contemplation before the moments of bliss – gravity-fed soul food – flying down mountains.

        We finally reached- the top of the couloir to find ourselves on a knife edge snow ridge, with another snow filled shute of equal proportions on the opposite aspect, dropping all the way down to the Lechner glacier valley to the north. Resting on our implanted axes we munch on some food and get some water, remarking about the couloir and how close the summit appears to be. We’ll be walking a knife edge ridge, climbing a steep face, then climbing a final steep snow ridge to the base of the summit cornice. I led down the knife edge, stepping gingerly but firmly, a catwalk between two 2,000 ft. couloirs. After ascending the upper face, we climbed the final and steepest part of the route, a 60 degree ridge, which was manageable with an ice axe and a pole with the basket removed. “How’s the cornice look?” Geoff yelled from below, as I was half way up the ridge. “Looks like we’ll be able to just pull right over it” I reply, not realizing the actual distance I still was from it. When I reached the top of the ridge at the cornice, I found it to be about ten ft. tall, with a small notch at the base. We worked our way along the base of the cornice to the north, eventually wrapping around to the north end of the peak and finding a spot where the cornice was minimal, plunging my tools and boots into the snow a few more times before pulling over and onto the summit fin, into the bright morning sunshine. The snow on the summit was sparkling in the sun, perfectly arching up to high point. There was no breeze at all – just stillness and I looked around at my surroundings. Bear Lagoon was sitting directly below us to the east, a massive pool of blue glacial/tidal water, punctuated with enormous icebergs that looked tiny from where we were. I looked down to the south, at all the peaks of the peninsula getting lower and lower until dropping off into the endless ocean, now a sea of low clouds, engulfing portions of the Chiswell islands and the islands south of Resurrection. Looking to the west one looks down at the Harding Icefield, a 750 square mile expanse of ice, with rocky peaks emerging from the surface, finally exposed to the air after thousands of years of being sculpted by the ice. We sat up on the summit for about an hour, reveling in our joy and taking in the purity of the moment on a peak we weren’t sure anyone had ever even set foot on before. We called it Poseidon, the god of the sea. 

        It was time to ski. 20 minutes after my brother Riley had given us the radio call from the Pederson Bight letting us know that the sun was hitting the line. I was a little nervous as I clipped into my skis, running the line though my head, trying to keep the focus instead of thinking about the consequences. We were both amped. It was a go. A few shuffles and a shift of the weight and we were off, traversing underneath the cornice, holding our edges as we made our way over to the steep ridge that snow led to our sunny and epic line – the steep upper face, down to the huge couloir, all the way down to the lower south bowl. Geoff and I exchanged a few words, deciding to send the entire line one in one run, individually. With a optimistic, “See ya at the bottom!”, Geoff hopped right into his first turn, making some controlled jump turns in the shade, sliding over into the sun as the ridge mellowed out. With one look down the face, he took a huge ski cut, sending reflective bits of icy corn snow scattering down the fall line: A good sign, not too warm yet. After finding that the line was bomber, Geoff started arching fast and graceful turns down the mountain, traversing over right to the top of the couloir and proceeding to send the chute with elegance and control. 

        What a relief to see Geoff all the way down at the bottom, pole raised, safe and sound. But this meant it was my turn. Before I could second guess myself, I shifted my weight and started side slipping down the steep summit ridge, flying confidently onto the upper face, shredding huge turns as gravity pulled me downward, feeling the crispness of the snow on my edges, constantly watching the ocean in the distance through my peripheral. I pumped a big turn into the side of a curved wind lip, and proceeded to traverse into the couloir, Laying steep turn after steep turn down the fall line as corn snow sprayed off the surface into the sky, eventually funneling down into the gunnels. I skied beside the gunnels as the slope evened out, watching my sluff ride down the mountain along with me, found a good spot to cross through the toe of it, cruising right down to reconvene with Geoff, dodging melted out rock-holes for the last few hundred feet. He had a massive grin on his face as we high fived and wrapped into a hug, stoked on the success of the mission. After numerous spouts of happiness and whoops to no one, we proceeded to climb a small nearby gully that topped out above the massive bowl of the west facing aspect. In the saddle, we took some time to be on the mountain one last time before ripping down a narrow and curving couloir into the bowl, skiing the face of the bowl and picking our way through the facet ridden alders to find our kayaks still resting beside the shoreline, about a 4,000 vertical ft descent. I stepped onto the sunny cobblestones of the beach, waves lapping up on the shore, flying high after such a monumental experience. We went for a dunk in one of the nearby fresh water lagoons, laying out on the warm cobbles and soaking in the mid afternoon rays, perfect. 

photo cred: Geoff Jans

        After about an hour and a half, we found the motivation to load our gear back into our boats and get back on the ocean. Ten minutes later we were paddling back across the fjord, with a slight sea breeze from the south creating a little swell, our kayaks rocking about on the fluid surface. Paddling is such a phenomenal way to finish a good long day in the mountains, returning to the sea to reflect on the day, getting back into the original meditative groove that is so characteristic of paddling on the ocean. Five miles later, we arrived back on the beach we had left 14 hours ago, a solid day’s mission. It felt great to be back, having been full circle at this point, returning my home on the Pederson Lagoon, the most peaceful place I have ever known on this planet. Content with our journey, we finally put our skis away for the season. This was the third of three first ascents and descents I was blessed to put up during the month of June in Aialik Bay. It will be a month to remember for the rest of my life, forever an inspiration to keep exploring the untouched alpine wilderness that is south-central Alaska. 

photo cred: Geoff Jans

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* To see the article in it's published context, check out: for the pdf I posted on the APU Outdoor Studies Wall *