I can be a bit of a planner. In fact, I have been known to have back up plans for my back up plans. If I have learned anything over the last year its that no matter how carefully and meticulously you plan things out life can still drop a grenade in your lap that leaves you stunned, shaking your head, saying to yourself “Whaaa? What just happened here??”
So, when one night in early April I received a phone call from someone I had never met about a trip I knew nothing about my first reaction was, ” I have no plan for this!” My only connection was that my dear friend Erin told her sister Kellie, a rather tenacious and avid mountain athlete, that I liked to ski. As Kellie began to describe what this adventure would entail, my mind was generating a million reason for why this just wouldn’t work. But my intuition told me that this was not an opportunity to pass up; this was, in fact, the opportunity of a life time.
The plan was that myself and 7 other people would form a rag tag group that would meet in Homer on Thursday night to board the M/V Milo, a stout vessel captained by Mike McCune and crewed by Surf Alaska’s Scott and Stephanie Dickerson. Late that evening we would set sail across the Cook Inlet for a 10 hour journey through the night to Augustine Volcano. Once on the shores of this still active volcano we would make our ascent to the summit and ski the lines of our choosing for several days before returning across the inlet on Sunday night for a Monday morning arrival back in Homer.
Questions started racing through my head. First and foremost, when is this all taking place? Keep in mind, this conversation occurred late one Sunday night. I figured the trip was at least a few weeks out. Kellie’s no nonsense response was “Thursday.” One simple word that implied so much. As in, “Thursday, so get your act together, do what you need to do, and be on the boat on Thursday.”
I had no idea how I was going to pull this off. What would I do with my dog? I don’t have AT kit, what will I ski on? I totally forgot to ask what I need to pack, what do I need? What will I eat? Where are we staying? I think she said on the boat? How am I going to get to Homer?
And the list goes on.
But still my instinct told me that no matter my reservations about what I was about to rush headlong into I could not pass this up. So, Monday morning I booked the pup into the boarders and booked myself a ticket to Homer. What’s the worst that could happen, right? I had four days to sort out the logistics, I could do this.
My initial plan, and only real option, was to pull out my rarely used tele skis. Soft, short, and less than ideal, I was less than thrilled about freeing my heel. I am a firm believer in ‘fix your heal, fix your problems’. I knew I would be able to pick my way down the mountain on tele’s but it wouldn’t be pretty.
Thank goodness for small miracles. Wednesday night, while sitting around at the Longbranch Saloon having a few beers, I ended up discussing the trip with a few friends. The immediate response to my free heeled dilemma was a mixture of humor and horror. They instructed me to call Colin, the man of a million skis who just happened to share a boot sole length with me. Colin very generously agreed to loan me an AT set up for the weekend, a beautiful pair of Armada TST’s with La Sportiva bindings. He even threw in the boots. So, there I was sitting in Colin’s living room at 11:00 pm the night before I was to leave while he cut a fresh set of skins for me to head out on. Talk about a last minute reprieve.
The following evening I met Kellie at the airport to make the 40 minute hop to Homer. Flying over the inlet, staring out the window at the snow cap mountains, I was excited to get back on my skis. My season had been dismal thus far, maybe this was a shot at ski season redemption. Touching down in Homer, we were picked up and whisked off to the Spit to find our vessel and get on board. There I met the rest of the crew that I was setting out on this adventure with.
Matt and Agnes – A fun loving couple with many amazing adventures behind them and even more ahead of them. With all of them being captured by Matt’s talented eye behind the lens of a camera.
Erik and Kathy – A kind and generous pair who have probably forgotten more about the mountains than I can hope to learn. Erik’s alter ego is The Viking.
Andy – I am pretty sure he is a purpose built robot designed for boot packing at high rates of speed
Doug – Great fun to be around, knowledgeable in the mountains and willing to get after it.
Kellie – My only loose connection to this trip. Hard charging and talented, Amazing attitude and adventurous spirit; an inspiring person to be around.
To be sure, this was a mixed bag. Not everyone had skied together and I had most definitely not skied with any of them. I knew they all had a great deal more time than I did in the big mountains, which isn’t hard to achieve seeing as I am a complete rookie when it comes to backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. I was nervous to say the least. I was reasonably confident that I could get myself down the mountain, but I had no idea if I would be able to hang with them going up!
With the introductions made and the boat underway, we settled in for the night and the began our crossing to Augustine. Bunked in the foc’sle, I drifted off to sleep with heavy anticipation of what the next day would bring.
The sight that greeted me the next morning was unforgettable; anchored in the clam waters off the eastern shore of Augustine, I awoke in time to catch a beautiful sunrise on a crystal clear sky, bathing Augustine in light.
After soaking in the beauty for a few moments it was time to get moving. We gathered our gear and got ready to run ashore in the skiff. I can’t say I have ever started a day of skiing by putting my boots on on a beach. We then settled in for a few hours of touring to get to our main approach up to the summit.
Well, skins will only get you so far and we had reached that point. It was time to boot pack. We choose to ascend to the right of the monolith and onwards to the summit.
After picking our way to the top we reached a point where we decided to go no higher. Kellie and Andy had arrived well before the rest of us and had looked over multiple options to get to the true summit but the active steam vents had made the snow unpredictable. There were snow bridges all over and the stability was questionable. After Andy discovered just how unpredictable it was we decided to call it and sit down for a well deserved lunch.
As we prepared to head back down, I have to admit, I began to feel much more at ease with my skis on my feet as opposed to my pack. I had been tense on the boot pack up. Not that is was gnarly and sketchy by any means, just that I was out of my element. With my heel locked down and my tips pointed in the right direction, I felt the tension release as I began to survey the veritable playground in front of me. The landscape was a mix of blown wind lips, lava and boulder features, and tight turns. I was starting to imagine endless combinations of slarve turns and slashes. A wry smile crept across my face when Kellie looked to me and said, Well, go for it.”
Now, I have skied better snow and I have skied zones with more features. I have also skied with a variety of great people over the years. But this moment was spectacular. Standing on that mountain, looking down a playful yet unforgiving line, staring out over the deep blue inlet with not a cloud in the sky, with a group of truly amazing people has been forever etched in my memory as my all time favorite moment on skis, if not life in general. At that moment I felt reinvigorated and inspired. A flood of happiness, contentment, and excitement washed over me and I felt certain of where I was supposed to be in life; right here. Savoring the moment for a second or two longer, I drank it all in and then pointed my skis down hill.
A few hundred feet off the summit, out of the steam vents and well into the line, we had all begun to relax a little bit and become a bit more playful. Letting your guard down on a place like Augustine can be a dangerous thing. Its moments like that when the unexpected can jump up and bite you. And that is just what happened to us. As we traversed between zones Matt, who was leading us through and was maybe 15 feet in front of me, suddenly disappeared. Looking down, in shocked disbelief, I found Matt clinging to the edge of a hole hanging on with all his might. The steam had hollowed out the snow from below creating a weak layer and the snow bridge had collapsed under Matt’s weight. Kellie approached first, low to the ground on the downhill side, and I came in beside her. After grabbing hold of of the top loop of his pack and passing him an ice ax we began to figure out our next move. Initially, no one knew how deep the hole was and we were all truly terrified. But as Matt’s eyes adjusted and he felt the terrain below he began to find safe purchase. We all started to breathe again knowing that a major catastrophe had been luckily averted. While there were some seconds of sheer terror we are now mostly able to look back and have a chuckle at the moment and count ourselves lucky.
After we calmed down from the brief moment of excitement we gathered ourselves up and continued on our way down the mountain stopping at various vantage points, discussing lines and photo ops. We set up shots through multiple zones and came away with some very amazing photos thanks to Matt. More to come on that.
As we made our way to the bottom we were all elated and happy but some of the group wanted more and some were ready to head to the boat. Andy, Kellie, Erik, Kathy and myself turned back up the mountain for one more run. As we skinned back towards the boot pack, light began to fade as the sun dipped lower. Erik and Kathy decided to call it and turn downhill. I went on a few hundred more feet but Andy and Kellie had pulled ahead in a commanding lead and my legs were fading. I yelled up to Kellie that I was going to turn back as well. At this point I had a minor binding malfunction and couldn’t get my heel to lock down or my boot to sit properly in the binding. I tried a few different MacGyver style fixes but had no luck. I ended up walking about a mile or mile and a half back to the shore. In the past, this would have been annoyingly frustrating and troublesome. Enough to really ruin my day. But that day, it turns out, it was just what I needed and wanted even if I didn’t know it. That time alone in the silence of the mountain surrounded by the beauty of creation was a blessing and an opportunity to quietly reflect on my heart and mind and the amazing opportunity that had been laid in front of me. Several months back I had some conversations with a dear friend who expounded on the virtues and importance of walking. I am always intrigued by his knowledge and love to listen to his theories and wisdom, he is after all, many leagues ahead of me in regards to intelligence, but I never really allowed his wisdom to sink in. But in this moment, walking along the surface of this majestic volcano, the value and importance of the simplistic act of just walking hit home.
After a mind-blowingly epic day we all made it back to the boat and began the celebration. As we got underway to sail to the west side of Augustine we surveyed our line and savored the victory. Wrapping around the island we started to see aspects previously hidden to us. That’s when we realized that we had started with the burliest line on the entire mountain! The other aspects were about as straight forward as it gets while we had gone straight for the most convoluted approach. As the conversations unfolded around the dinner table it was revealed that there was some apprehension initially about my presence on the trip. I was a complete unknown quantity to all these people. They all at least traveled in the same circles but I was definitely out of left field. All they new was that I was a desk jockey who claimed to ski. Apparently, prior to the trip I had been deemed ‘the wildcard’. After a few margaritas Matt deemed me to be ‘Legit’ and ‘Badass’. I was humbled by his generosity and not sure I was worthy of the moniker, but it has been a long time since I have felt so embraced and accepted by such a group.
Andy made possibly the best fish chowder I have ever had and Agnes mixed some spectacular margaritas. we spent the night regaling each other with adventures and moments from the past and laying out future ambitions. I think Mike wins hands down for the best story about having to land a plane by himself when the pilot passed out.
One thing I am quickly learning about Alaska is that it is imperative that you take advantage of your weather window whenever possible. Day two we awoke to a greybird day and high seas. Even protected on the lee side of the island we were feeling the affects. The summit was beginning to accumulate cloud cover and the winds were picking up but we felt we had enough vis to at least make a run at it. The ride to shore was blustery at best, drenching in most cases. Once on shore we stripped off out rain gear and began the approach. This side of the island had a longer approach with a lower angle, pretty straight forward and simple. After clearing the brush and trees by the shoreline, we began to make our way up the more exposed portion of the skin track. Weather was moving in quickly and we ascended with a vicious headwind bearing down on us. Cloud cover was marching down the peak, quickly enveloping it. Not far from the base of the peak we posted up behind a large rock to refuel and discuss our next move. The group was split 50/50. Half wanted to head back and the other half wanted to press on and see what they could make of it. Doug, Kathy and myself elected to turn back towards the beach while Kellie, Andy, and Erik pressed on. They would ascend several hundred vertical feet further but eventually be shut down. We eventually all regrouped on the beach and waited for our ride back to the boat. Once back on board, Erik and Kathy treated us to an amazing salmon filet for dinner and Agnes prepared gourmet bloody marys. We really did eat like royalty on this trip!
As soon as I woke up the next morning I knew we would be facing another weather day. Even in the foc’sle, one of the more stable parts of the ship, I could feel the waves heaving the boat. And we were still in the protected lee of the island. On the captains advice we began to motor north into Iniskin Bay. The trip over to the bay took several hours, most of which was spent trying to stave off seasickness. Once in the bay we were pleased to find no shortage of amazing couloirs that came straight down to the ocean, what an amazing treat! The rain was hammering down at this point and there was a great deal of discussion in the cabin around steaming mugs of coffee as to whether we would make an ascent or not. In the end I was on the fence but Kellie’s enthusiasm is contagious and it won me over. Kellie, Erik, and I picked a couloir from the multitude of choices and got geared up. It would be easy to spend a week in this area picking line after line from the comfort of your boat; a trip I intend on doing in the future.
With hip waders secured and extra toughs on we got as close in the skiff as possible and waded in the final steps. There is something completely unique about sitting on a rocky beach in the rain while you put on ski boots only to turn around and begin your boot pack straight from the shore line. We worked our way through the alders and into the main portion of the couloir. The snow was punchy and the rain was pouring down but this day was one of my favorite moments of the trip. The trip up the couloir was filled with great conversation about life, mountains, and life in the mountains. The opportunity to spend time with and learn from two fantastic athletes who are so willing to teach was truly a blessing. We topped out the couloir on a windy ridge line. We made a quick survey of our surrounds and then made our descent. All things considered, rain pouring down and visibility marginal at best, the turns down to the bottom were very enjoyable. The snow was soft, if not a little moist, and pliable. I enjoyed every last one down to the beach. Standing on the shore waiting for our pick up, none of us regretted our decision to go play in the rain. I can’t think of a much better way to close out our trip.
With a warm meal of delicious chili mac waiting, we dried out and warmed up. Knowing that the the crossing was going to be potentially tumultuous a few of us finished dinner and headed to our bunks to settle in for the crossing before it got too rough. I spent the next several hours drifting between sleep and day dreams of skiing before finally settling into a deep and restful sleep.
The next morning we found ourselves back in the slip in Homer with the sun shining down. We unloaded our mounds of gear and said our goodbyes. I rushed off to the airport and managed to sneak onto the 7:30 am flight back to anchorage. Scruffy, smelly, and tired I got a few sideways glances on my trip home. I found myself in the office by 9:30 but my mind was still on Augustine. It would be for days, if not weeks.
If you’re lucky, there will be moments in your life that you can look back on and recognize as pivotal and monumental that alter the course you are on. Augustine ended up being more than a ski trip for me personally, it was a milestone; a change in focus and direction. It rekindled a passion that I haven’t had for years, a passion to be in the mountains and humbled by their vastness. I feel blessed for having this opportunity placed in my life, the people I have met along the way and for the doors it has opened. I have no intention of wasting any of it and hopefully this is only the first of many, many adventures to come.
Thanks so much to Andy, Doug, The Viking, and Kathy for taking me on as a new ski partner and the amazing hospitality. Thanks to Matt and Ags for providing hours of entertainment and capturing these spectacular moments through the lens of your camera. And to Mike, Scott, and Stephanie for all that you and the Milo allowed us to access.
My biggest heartfelt thanks goes out to the Okonek Sisters; Kellie and Erin. Erin for putting my name out there and encouraging me to “Just say yes” and to Kellie for taking a complete gamble on a wildcard.