It seems like every time my group of friends has mutual time off, the weather turns to shit. This trip was no exception. Christmas was done for and New Years was upon us. Rick took time away from AMH to do something cool. Our buddy Zach Alexakis flew up from Bend to shred the gnar. Ryan “Sims” had some time off around new years and was intent on luring everyone to Valdez to shred. We were extremely tempted, but unfortunately Valdez is not a great destination if it’s snowing. And snowing it was.
After a night of drinking and trip idea proposals, all options were on the table. But most of those options sucked. Anything north of the Alaska Range was ruled out. Valdez was getting buried in snow; out. Turnagain was avalanche-prone and too popular anyways; Seward weather was stormy. Cantwell skiing was possible but seemed like a reach. The Deltas were a competitive option, but weather looked to be better in the Talkeetnas.
Decision made, Bomber Traverse it would be. Sims took some convincing, but soon we had him driving straight towards us as we frantically packed 5 days worth of food and booze.
The morning we were to depart it was raining in Palmer. We stopped by the local Carr’s to load up on breakfast burritos; these particular folk make the best Carr’s breakfast burritos in the state, hands down. I saw a coworker who asked what I was up to and if I knew it was raining. I told him it wasn’t raining in Hatcher Pass and that’s where we were headed.
There had been no snow accumulation below 2,000′ elevation this winter, as we were driving up Fishhook Road to Hatcher Pass Sims and Zach questioned if there was any snow up higher.
“I swear man, it’s winter up high!” claimed Rick. Sure enough, we arrived at a snowy Gold Mind parking lot. We slammed a few pre-slog beers, loaded the dogs up, slammed a few more beers and were off.
The laborious slog up Gold Mint valley is and was typically shitty. 8 miles of cross country skiing followed by a thousand or so feet of elevation gain is a bitch without 60lbs of food and beer on your back, to say the least.
We had relatively good weather for the approach to the Mint Hut; we gazed back on the storm clouds currently inhabiting Palmer and chuckled at our good luck. We had found the only place the weather didn’t completely suck.
As we hugged up the left side of the valley for the ascent to the Mint Hut, darkness fell upon us. Since liquor doesn’t agree with my body anymore, I had packed somewhere around 12 beers, with Kiro carrying a few of them. The boys carried two beers each. This stockpile quickly diminished as we gained elevation and distance from the parking lot, by the time we reached the top of the first hill I was down to 9-10. Rick mistakenly proclaimed we had reached the final downhill and that it was time for some whisky from The Flask. Sims had not been aware Zach was carrying two fifths of whisky on his person and was overjoyed at this discovery.
After tanking a respectable portion of whisky, our group started the perceived descent to the Mint Hut. Fortunately and unfortunately, before truly committing to reaching the bottom of the hill I realized Rick was it wrong and we still had one more hill to go. We turned 180 degrees, complained a bit, and started up the true final hill. Not-too-long after we were sking downhill and spotted the half-buried Mint Hut. The Mint Hut is two stories, the lower area for partying and cooking with the upper full loft for sleeping.
Rick told us a story about a group of skiers being unable to locate the hut, only to check their GPS and realize they were standing on it. Shortly after another skier arrived, broke out his probe and shovel, and dug down gain access to the hut.
We arrived just after 9pm, having started around 1pm. Pretty good time for the amount of shit we hauled. The first thing I noticed was two Coleman stoves sitting in the entryway, with a message written on cardboard “STOVE BROKEN DO NOT USE, GIANT FIREBALL”
Rick began fiddling with the stove and took a few parts from the first and added them to the second. 20 minutes later we had a pot of snow sitting on the brilliant blue Coleman flame of the Frankenstove. A few hours, bowls, and beers later we crashed in the loft.
The next morning we woke up to 6″ of fresh snow and whiteout conditions. This being New Years Eve, we decided we would spend it partying at the Mint Hut rather than press through the storm to the Bomber Hut.
Towards the afternoon the weather started to improve. We did a few laps on the hill above the hut in flat-ish light and Sims, Zach, and I returned to the hut to drink. I got all ambitious and dug the hut window out, then started digging a snow cave. Shortly after Rick burst though the door, yelling mostly incomprehensible words which we translated into something about a “weather window”.
We hurriedly grabbed our clothes and skins and marched out to the coulier just down the hill from the hut. By the time we got there the evening sun was shining through the glorious breaks in the clouds.
We cruised down the endless powder to the bottom of the chute where we re-skinned our shredsticks and hiked back around the hill towards the hut. Halfway there Rick bailed and took another ski lap, eager to shred. We all took another lap (Rick took another-nother lap) and we got to the hut around dusk.
After ingesting something that was technically food but more of an experience, all but Rick took 30 minute power naps. Our first dinner was delicious FA-hitas, which we munched on as we awaited midnight. Around 11pm we went to the top of the hill above the hut and didn’t light off a portion of our $100 worth of fireworks, because that would be wrong. After not lighting off fireworks, we went back down to the hut to collect intoxicants and not more fireworks, then made it up the hill in time for midnight, sans Kiro. We didn’t make badass launching station for firing mortars because Max-dog would definitely chase said mortars, and the mortars didn’t make amazing resounding booms across the Mint Valley when they didn’t explode. Because that kind of fun would be against the rules.
New Years Day we awoke to moderately good weather, so we decided to push over Backdoor Gap to the Bomber Hut. Rick initially led ahead of the group, swinging his Rutschblock cord ahead of him to illuminate terrain in the flat light like some demented fisher.
As we made our way up to Backdoor Gap, we encountered varying snow conditions. Every now and then we would find ourselves on a wind slab, at which time the leader would cut towards the rocks to avoid being in the middle of a snow slope on a slab. When we were nearing the top we felt and saw a windstorm oncoming. Great motivation to not take any breaks! We made good time getting up to the high mountain pass, the final few hundred feet required boot-packing because the snow was so wind-packed. The splitboarders with Phantom Bindings (Zach, Sims) and Rick with his tech-toe bindings were able to strap their shredsticks together with ease. My archaic splitboard setup with Magneto Bindings was more difficult to keep a hold of, but 2 hours after leaving the Mint Hut we arrived at the top of Backdoor Gap.
I was the last to ascend Backdoor Gap, noticing Sims and Rick involving in the task of cutting a cornice that would fall onto Penny Royal Glacier. I somewhat hastily discarded my split-skis and my pack below the others’ and watched Rick and Sims finish the cornice cut. As the cornice broke, it fell down and rolled onto the Penny Royal Glacier, with Max chasing it as fast as he could.
I figured it was time to pick the packs back up. Suddenly, I heard Rick yell “SKI!” and looked back in horror as I saw one of my split-skis gaining speed down Backdoor Gap. Rick leaped from where he was standing and started penguin-sliding towards my split-ski. Moments later, Sims leaped after and was penguin-sliding towards Rick. Rick grabbed my split-ski and Sims grabbed Rick. All three came to a stop before the multiple-thousand foot drop to the bottom of the Mint Valley. It still gives me an adrenaline rush thinking about it; all happened faster than I could react. I didn’t kiss Rick but I wish I had; the trip had come very close to being royally fucked.
Clasping my other split-ski close, I accepted my recovered shredstick, quickly de-skinned it, and secured it to its mate. Everyone de-skinned, switched to shred-mode and dropped off the edge of the cornice to the Penny Royal. After the initial flat-light drop the travel was easy; we met up with Max, who had been chewing on the cut cornice.
We arrived at the Bomber Hut at 4:10pm, a whole 10 minutes early!
We removed the metal from the hut window and shut ourselves in the cabin. Rick got to work on the stove after we found another note claiming the stove was broken and not to use it.
“Goddammit, no one knows how to use these fucking stoves,” Rick swore as he fiddled with the ignition mechanism. Shortly after, we had a roaring stove with a full pot of snow melting, while simultaneously we heard the wind pick up outside to around 40mph and also noticed our skins, hung up to dry on the wall, were blowing with the wind. Inside the hut.
We were far to tired to give any more fucks that evening and spent a moderately chilly night in the Bomber Hut loft listening to the wind roar. The next morning we got our shit together and after realizing we were going to spend another night in the hut (the wind had not abated), we were determined to be warm.
The first step in fixing the door was to reattach the snow plow, which someone had removed from the bottom of the outside of the door. After that we cut up some foam pads in the hut to seal the top and right side of the door. I focused on the hinge-edge of the door. Our foam would not work on this side because the door needed to close, so I took some duck tape and applied it from the top to the bottom, cutting slots for the hinges. All we really had to do was prevent the wind from getting in the hut, it was a simple but effective solution. After repairing the door the temperature inside the hut immediately started to increase a good 15 degrees Fahrenheit.
There wasn’t much to do for the rest of the day besides drink and party and eat. We played a game of flip-cup in order to deplete the last of our whisky, which Zach and I lost. Which, in a way, was a victory because we got to drink more whisky. By day four my stomach had developed a tolerance for hard alcohol once again.
Rick convinced everyone it would be worth it to do a night ski lap. The snow on the flats dropping down from the hut was surprisingly soft, considering all the other snow in the valley was hard-packed windslab. At the bottom I took off my board and, while transitioning to ski-mode, I noticed my right foot was rather wet. Goddammit, I was standing in water, with soft boots nonetheless (second time this has happened this season). It was only I who had found water, everyone else was happily skinning upwards. I returned to the hut and inspected my boot which thankfully was NOT thoroughly soaked. I relit the lantern and prepared the hut for the return of the boys. We ate some delicious dinner and popcorn then crashed, all the while listening to the wind outside.
By morning the wind had calmed considerably, which was good because we all were supposed to be home by the following day. I had work, Rick had work, and Zach and Sims had plans for shredding Valdez. We made some Kodiak Cakes and powered off, making our way down the Bartholf Valley with ease.
When we reached the corner that intersects with the valley leading to Snowbird Glacier, we took a break. I took the lead after this and led a ways until we started up a slope, after which the boys sped ahead.
Incredible rock formations were to our right as we climbed the slope. I was confused as to where we were and thought we should be rounding the corner with Snowbird Glacier on our left. I thought we had already passed the lake and were above it. I found it odd I couldn’t distinguish the lake from the rest of the landscape, but whatever it was winter and snow does that.
After reaching the top of the rock I fully realized I had no idea where I was. A moment of doubt entered my mind and I entertained the thoughts of being lost. “We can’t bivy out here! What if we went too far up the valley? The sun is already starting to set, we’re so fucked.”
After meeting up with the boys I realized we were standing on the lake I thought we had already passed. Thank God. We continued upwards after eating some Nutelladias.
At long last we reached the Snowbird Hut, the most familiar scene we had encountered on our trip. The hut was still warm and there was a fresh trail up the glacier; we must have just missed folks who were out here for new years. The little Ricksmas Tree that Rick had left in a whisky bottle during his Christmas trip to Snowbird was still there. The 6-shooter pipe I had left on a previous trip was not there. We cooked up some bacon, drank some liquor someone left at the hut, and departed. We made it to Snowbird Pass before dark, hiking far up the hill to avoid sketchy snow conditions on the typical descent from the pass. A plane flew right above us and made a circle around us before departing. We found this odd because it was not ideal flying weather.
We cleared the pass in very windy conditions, making our way down a few hundred feet before transitioning to shred-mode. Snowbird Pass is notorious for being the only spot in Hatcher Pass with cell reception.
“Holy shit, guys. Rachel said someone died in Hatcher Pass recently and avalanche danger is super high.” Laughing hysterically and trying to communicate, Zach said “I guess people are, like, super worried about us. Too bad we couldn’t tell them we’ve been safe the whole time.”
We descended Glacier Creek quickly, I took Kiro’s backpack to expedite matters. The terrain was completely different than I remember because of all the new snow; we descended down the Third Step, the Second Step, then the First Step, then shuffled down Archangel Road until we found the cuttoff for Gold Mint Parking Lot. We cruised down that and slammed a few victory beers from the case we had in the car before driving home.
The whole trip was around 25 miles. It was graciously one of those trips where things almost went to shit, but then they didn’t. The one regret was not bringing more beer; we exhausted our supply before the second night was over.