Sunday, March 12, 2017

Skiing Shishaldin - part zero

About 20 years ago I was on a flight to Asia for work watching some dumb action movie or reading Sports Illustrated when the pilot came on to give us a quick flight update.   “We are passing over the Aleutian Islands” I looked down and was stunned to see a lot of big mountains that looked like great skiing.  We flew along for a while just paralleling the string of islands stretching towards Russia and I marveled at the ski potential that existed on those islands. But, like seeing a pretty girl, I kinda forgot about it and have spent all of my ski energies since then on more civilized skiing. 

Fast forward to last July, when I got a call from our old friend Cameron Lawson, an adventurer/pilot/ professional outdoor photographer who has become in the last few years a literal “Titan” in the industrial strap world. He had a proposal for me:  how about skiing Mount Shishaldin, which has the distinction of being the highest peak in the Aleutians.  Immediately my recollection of my action movie interruption bubbled back out of my brain, and in the searing heat of July the prospect of skiing an Alaskan peak in the middle of the North Pacific sounded delicious.  As such, I couldn’t think of a good reason not to, so I said “Sure, why not?” 
From a map in the airport, with Unimak island circled
Actually, there are a lot of reasons “why not!”  I have never been very tempted to try to ski Denali or the other big AK peaks, mostly because I like my toes and fingers too much and struggle with their circulation enough that I worry about the deep cold and the potential inability for external sources of heat to warm them (not to mention the many other challenges associated with far north, high elevation ski mountaineering).  And I have never actually winter camped; I have had years where I’ve spent literally hundreds of nights outside, but always in spring/summer/fall; I basically have felt a bit smug in saying “I’m smart enough to have always done my winter adventuring out of a nice warm friendly hut or yurt or….my house!” and it’s worked out well for me.  Why spend all that time melting snow for water when you can just use the local spring or creek or, for that matter, the tap?  The long nights of winter have always seemed a bit daunting, and I’ve also felt a bit twitchy about the concept of spending days at a time waiting out bad weather, which seems to be as much a function of winter trips as anything.  And like a lot of big adventures, just getting there is a PIA; first fly to Anchorage, then to Cold Bay (pop 108) then another 3-times-per-week flight to False Pass (pop 68); all with their own fares and baggage fees.  It basically takes almost as much time to get to the start as it does to get to Japan to ski, with comparable air fares (and comparable grocery prices!).  But at least it’s famously windy in the Aleutians!  And due to Cameron's schedule and flight schedules I sheepishly admit that I was sorry to miss the mighty Wasatch Powder Keg and/or a good desert adventure with the New England and Cincinnati Canyoneering teams happening at the same time.  

But Cameron’s suggestion of Shishaldin had some appeal.  It’s not a big AK peak:  it’s only 9300 feet high and it rises more or less right out of the ocean so the climate is maritime and  the Aleutian chain dips quite a ways southwest from the Alaskan peninsula so it’s not that much further north than the huts we go to in BC.  So the weather is not the same blistering cold that is prevalent in the Alaska range, even in the latter’s spring climbing season.  It’s a 23 mile hike in to the base, so theoretically it can be a 2 day approach, one big day to summit and back to camp, and 2-3 days back out.  But because of the weather it’s important to have extra food (and books; tho Cameron doesn’t seem to have any, nor is he a Scrabble player!) for storm days.  And it’s a beautiful conical peak; in fact, The Google actually calls it the Most Conical Peak in the world.  And while it’s big and dramatic relative to its neighbors, it’s small enough so it’s very reasonable to bust out big day from the base to the top and back without having to spend a night at elevation. 
I hope we don't have to take advantage of this fancy Coast Guard heli, but it's nice to know its there....
Cameron came to give Shishaldin a go last year and arrived a couple of weeks later and they were ironically beset by wet weather; he said it felt like walking into the face of a ski resort snowgun blowing slush at them, and they didn’t make it very far before retreating, which turned out to be a wise decision, though it only fueled Cameron’s obsession with this adventure.  As such, I have felt compelled to remind him that I am not obsessed with it, nor am I generally a summiteer who feels that my very being is only fulfilled by summitting ze peak.  I just wanna have fun – and am willing to work hard and suffer a bit - which he says he appreciates and understands.
Oh Yeah!  Cameron stoked to be putting on some cold-beating weight via the Anchorage airport Cinnabon
And thus today we find ourselves in the thriving metropolis of Cold Bay, Alaska.  We spent the night at former Salt Laker-turned-Chugach Avalanche director Wendy Wagner’s home and had a flight filled with views of great snowy mountains.  Cold Bay is – according to Wiki – the cloudiest place in the US, but we were lucky enough to get one of the typical 61 clear days a year and got some great views:

The mountains nearby are beautiful, partly because of the sunlight gleaming and shimmering brightly on the “snow” on their flanks; we may not be skiing classic Wasatch powder! 

The airport is unpretentious:
Just chuck the bags through the hole.  Note the dreaded sleds....we are hoping to not have to engage those...

It's nice to have an airport library for weather issues....
As is the hotel shuttle, the hotel itself, and the proprietor:
Chris was a logger on Kodiak, and he has bear-sized paws himself as a result
Because the flight from Anchorage was sold out on Sunday and the flight to False Pass is on Monday, we have a full 2 days to hang out in Cold Bay.  There ain’t much goin on here any day, and I think it will be particularly acutely quiet on a Sunday, but we’ll make it happen.  We are hanging out with a couple of FAA guys who gallivant about the many small airports in Alaska and one of them told me that he really likes Cold Bay because the people are so nice; for reference, the folks at the Fort Yukon (on the Dalton Highway, north of Fairbanks) airstrip not only have shot at them but have vandalized their facilities since they represent the big bad regulatory government.  And their impression of the local’s hospitality has been represented:  the owner of the bar unexpectedly showed up at our room this morning with an egg breakfast!  (and barged/flown in food isn’t cheap to just give away out here).

Cold Bay is actually very well known in avaition circles; the airstrip is 12,000 feet long and they have been the emergency stopping point for trans-Pacific flights that have had issues, including two in the last few months.  It sounds like accommodating 240 guests for a day/night is a challenge for a town of 108 people! 

So far we have been warned about bears that don’t seem to be hibernating anymore, and they are on the big side:

and there are supposedly 3800 bears on this 1500 sq mi island; I’m no mathematician nor wildlife biologist, but that sounds like the Tokyo of the Ursine Kingdom!

But one of our plane mates told us we don’t need to worry about bears; it’s the wolverines that aren’t afraid and will getcha!
I'd love to see a wolverine....but then again, maybe I wouldn't......
The proprietor of our fine establishment asked us about what our “heat source” was; Cameron showed him how we just will button up our little down puffies against the wind before we realized that he was talkin' heat as in “packin heat", mostly for the wolves!   

Apparently there are so many they are decimating the local caribou herd.  Hopefully there are still plenty of caribou left so they don’t decimate the endangered species of skinny skiers carrying too much gear to move faster than a shuffle.  Our hotel proprietor actually offered to loan us his heat; maybe we’ll take him up on it, though Cameron and I are probably far more likely to shoot each other with it than take down any alpha predators. 
another sight I'd love to see, til I don't.....
The weather this year has been great; here is a link to the webcam on top of the adjacent peak Isanotski (whose a not ski?  and why not ski?).   We’ll see if it holds.   The forecast is favorable enough that we may cut our food supply from (a somewhat crushing) 10 days down to a more-manageable 7 days and see how that works out.  
this is a pic of a pic of our likely route up the (pretty mellow?) left skyline.  
It’ll be a unique adventure for this guy.  

1 comment:

  1. Is there part 1 or 2 of this story? I've been searching all over for information on how to ski this/trek it.