When you’ve been a skier since you where tiny — spending every summer waiting for snow and constantly watching videos of people skiing the most beautiful lines in Alaska for inspiration — there comes a time when skiing Alaska becomes an obsession for any European skier. That obsession grows with you and when you finally decide you are ready, you still have to define your style of travel and then align that with your ability and style of skiing, with your dreams and desires, and of course … with your bank manager.
No lodge, no daily helicopter drop-off, no heating, and no Wi-Fi … Perfection.
Because we like to add a little adventure in our daily lives and shelter close to the areas we want to ski, for us it came down to the Denali range. Setting up our base camp here would enable us to discover the true power of these mystical mountains. And the Denali range — the most alpine range in Alaska, highest in terms of altitude, visitors, and grit — is one that can only be approached in “Bivy mode”.
Little did we know, we were about to get so much snow we could only shovel it.
With everything planned, our small French team headed to the center of this wild Alaskan range in Denali National Park! After 24 hours of travel, a few planes, some luggage delays, and ever growing excitement, we landed softly in an area known as “the West Fork” in Ruth Gorge. The West Fork is a small islet of ice 7900ft above sea level, overlooked by the infamous Mount Huntington. While we enjoyed a break in the weather after 2 feet of snow fell the previous day, we started setting up camp. Used to the harsh conditions of this type of terrain and aware of the weather front that was coming towards us, we organized ourselves as best we could — our eyes permanently drawn to the north face of Mt. Huntington that was spewing snow in loud avalanches.
Five hours later, with one igloo and 2 tents set up, we wrapped ourselves in the warmth of our shelter. We were ready to face the snow and wait for the weather window that would fulfill our dreams of skiing the steep and deep.
What we would learn 2 weeks later is that we were preparing to weather the biggest snowstorm in 10 years, according to the Talkeetna locals.
All of this from the relative safety of our camp: 12 feet of snow in 14 days (approximately 1 foot per day). It was enough snow to keep us busy clearing our camp everyday as we were forced to wait it out, affording us an occasion to truly meditate on the meaning of the word “patience”.
Patience is this ability to stay focused on a goal, the ability to keep desire intact, motivation jacked-up, and to be master of one’s expectations. As the saying goes, it truly is a virtue. Patience is a noble quality, a force sometimes, but even if pushed to its extreme it can become a bit of a flaw. Going from virtue to vice, once it becomes an obsession this pipe dream begins to haunt you! Interestingly enough, patience has several enemies – among them are boredom and frustration. Our Chogori™ 3P tents helped us face both of these challenges at least comfortably by removing the cold and humidity. In the end, having good skis, several months of training, the support of great weather specialists, or even comfortable boots isn’t much compared to the comfort and warmth of a dry camp!
Without a doubt, we were frustrated. To be within reach of a goal without even being able to make an attempt is a tough pill to swallow. When you have travelled across a country, a continent, an ocean, seasons, for one specific purpose, waiting in front of your goal becomes a new and difficult test. Like an injured skier who is forced to watch the snow fall, everything was there in front of us, but all we could do was wait. So we waited.
In French, we have an expression, “Ronger son frein”, which translates to “gnawing at the bit”. It dates back to the 12th century and was used to describe an impatient horse that grinds his teeth on his bit. That reference says it all: we wanted to run, we wanted to release the skier inside and give it everything we’ve got. But we were forced to wait, and sometimes we got downright bored. We did our best to fight it by keeping ourselves busy. We did whatever we could to keep our minds busy and our feet busy. Of course, you absolutely need to get along with your teammates in a situation like this. Because even though there’s a lot of wide open space outside our shelter and even though our tents are huge and comfortable, you end up spending every minute of every day together.
Fortunately, we were not short of ideas to keep our bodies busy and our minds occupied. First of all, there’s always a camp duty to pass the time. Cooking meals for everyone, which also included melting bucket loads of snow to cook with and drink too! Throughout the day, we cleared the snow from around the camp — easily a foot of snow each day, often magnified by the wind. Then there was the everyday stuff too: clean the camp stove, patch a hole in your pants, fiddle with a painful ski boot, take care of blisters, build a kitchen inside the igloo, and so on. Definitely enough to keep us busy!
When all of that was complete, we always had some reading to fall back on.
Each one of us quietly indulging in his own private world inside of his book; having made sure to pick books that everyone else would enjoy so we could swap them once we had read them. Collective reading out loud became another variation to kill time. We also had packed audio books, and hoped the batteries would last. And then we would move on to writing and drawing, crosswords, and Sudoku … even vacation workbooks for the younger ones on the team!
As time slowed further, we started doodling on our mattresses, inventing more or less intelligent games, and going out and digging in the snow for no reason at all!
Some groups play music to pass the time. Solitary travelers often own-up to spending time talking to their camera or even a cuddly toy that becomes their confidants. One thing is certain; talking becomes a central element of the day in bonding the group together. Doubts, joys, fears, frustrations and ideas: everything is shared and these exchanges are rich and precious.
In the end, so many travelers have experienced this. It makes those epic trips that much more amazing. It’s the journey that often teaches us patience and forces us into introspection. For us, this ski trip ended up being mostly a camping adventure. But we were ok with that. We all have fond memories of the adventure, and we all came away with capacities that have grown, strengthened, and matured! So whenever you can, take some time for yourself, travel, challenge yourself – or even do all three!
François is an adventurer at heart — constantly dreaming of new discoveries or inspiring landscapes to craft stories around. Whether skiing, climbing, hiking, or sleeping in the unpredictable high country, François has long trusted his NEMO gear to keep him safe.