How to Get to Girdwood by Jake Young

A mountain Melter Adventure by local skier, ski maker & movie star: Jake Young. This is an excerpt from his book series coming out soon.

A mountain Melter Adventure by local skier, ski maker & movie star: Jake Young.

This is an excerpt from his book series coming out soon.

I was done working for the season and had a lot to go over in my mind. I thought of doing a 101-day ski meditation to first clear my mind then make it receptive to new ideas. After the crash there in Saskatchewan and my more recent trip to that God forsaken province, I felt like I had a new lease on life and that I should take advantage of that.

A ski meditation is simple. You can make a meditation out of a single run or a day or a single turn. Or maybe ten turns in a row or maybe ten days in a row. By meditation I mean that you operate in a state of blank focus and healthy intentions. Sometimes a blinding epiphany can carry forth through the deep apex of a turn. Or just the opposite: if I crash and loose a ski… what was thinking about when I crashed? Obviously something other then the turn, that is why I crashed.

I was aiming to be in a meditative state from January 1, 2007 until March 31, 2007. I would ski six days a week with Sunday as a rest day. I would stretch and contemplate life thus far. You can reach a meditative state through different specific exercises or modes of expression on skis.

There is the ‘high rep/ high speed’ practice that focuses on endurance of the mind as it controls the body through highly variable and potentially volatile motions. For example, every Wednesday Vesna would work as a volunteer avalanche tour guide on Blackcomb. She would ski around and discuss avalanche mitigation techniques with curious tourists. So for my Wednesdays, I would do as many ‘Spanky Laps’ as possible. Spanky’s Ladder is a short hike that will access Ruby Bowl, Diamond Bowl and Sapphire Bowl. You can do a lap every half hour on the minute if you keep the same pace. No time for smoking, pissing or drinking water. Over the day you can max out at 13 laps if there are no problems like people trying to talk to you or any such inconvenience. I might add that it is not the best way to make new ski friends. After about 15 minutes of skiing you have approximately 15 minutes on the chair to sit in silence or make chitchat with a tourist. They always seem real impressed that you live in such a beautiful place, so it is good to remind yourself of that.

The opposite end of the spectrum is in the backcountry. Your day is now split into climbing and skiing. A three-hour climb might yield 20 minutes of ski time. You meditation becomes focused on the exercise of propelling yourself up hill for however long and then on getting yourself down in one piece, considering avalanches etc.

As it turns out the two biggest days of my season were on the first day and the last day of my 101-day meditation.

I had been staring at the mountains from our new studio apartment just outside of Pemberton. Dead south from us was the long, low angle, tree covered ridge that cuts northeast from the summit of Mt Currie. From the Summit I could trace the horizon line behind and above the lower northeast ridge as it cuts due east back around to another prominent peak that we called the Bastion.

Off of the summit of the Bastion a beautiful coulior cuts straight through the craggy cliffs and intercepts a cut block some 2500 feet below. Those cut blocks are immediately adjacent to the base of the treed shoulder that leads to the summit of Mt. Currie as described earlier. It is a big loop.

My objective for the day was to climb and ski the coulior. I had reconned the parking lot the day before and since I was going solo, I had that special nervousness. In the silence only found in absence of idle chitchat with your climbing partner, you can really hear the little voice as you determine the safety and outcome of every step. When skiing solo in rugged terrain I have the tendency to look for every reason to turn around. There is an odd satisfaction in turning around and calling it a day in mid climb. In this case I had ample reasons to call it quits.

After negotiating through the cut blocks I cruised up the lower avalanche path with ease. The area was big and broad and low angle. For a while I could stay under cliff features to minimize the chance of an avalanche coming from above. About an hour into it, the path started to steepened and narrow.

The new snow was slabby and kind of drummy. I tried to do tight zigzag turns along the right wall as long as I could. I did not want to cut out on to the face because there was a hanging pocket up on the left. I stayed right, stayed right until a point when I had to go left. I was above the offending chute and only had to contend with the main chute now.

I poked the snow and sniffed the air. I had to go light and fast. I traversed nimbly almost willing the snow to launch out from under me because I was ready. I reached the safety of the left wall and continued making steep zigzags on the left wall. I could only maintain that technique for a while until it became too steep. The problem with boot packing is that the snow was weird breakable crust and thigh deep. Every step was a tremendous struggle. I pushed tight along the wall always being prepared to leap and grab solid rock if the snow moved.

I got up towards the top to where the chute hour glassed the opposite direction and became wider while getting steeper yet. I am at the end of my will and capacity. This is the first climb of the year and even though I have years of remembering what it is like to climb a route like this, my body is not so sure. With every step my left hamstring was cramping into a ball and then my right leg started doing it too. I had only drunk a half of a liter of water for 4 hours of work.

This is where the snow holds the most wind load potential, right at the apex of the pitch. I sensed that the snow was boxed in by the narrow section below and the way the snow seemed to be ‘cupped in’ by the natural contours. The snow was at my chest and I struggled upward until I broke over the crest and the sun shined in my face for the first time all day. I still had ten minutes to gain the real summit so I strapped on my skis and plodded on.

On the summit I could barely manage a gulp of water. I scanned the horizon line that circles the Gravell Creek drainage. It is the route that I can see from my house and I know I will do it someday… but not today. I must descend quickly and carefully. I made easy turns down ridge and then tight, steep turns down the gut. The snow was not even sloughing as I only sank in an inch or two. Down low my legs burned but my skis begged to let it run a bit on the smooth open slopes. I skied to the end of the snow and walked the last bit to the truck and knew that it was going to be a good season.

On March 31, I finished my 101-Day ski Meditation. My friend Mark and I were to ski out to Tremore, a nice day tour out behind Blackcomb. Mark was one of my successful ‘project skiers.’ Like Hans years ago, Mark had a keen mind and quick reflexes suited for high danger in the mountains. More importantly he was ready to be beaten down in order to grow in the long run.

I had met Mark back in Smithers the previous winter. He was new to the skiers lifestyle, as he had just moved out west from Ontario. At the same time I had also met Tom, who was fresh from Vancouver. He was equally keen but slightly slower upstairs, if you know what I mean. So here I am, this jaded, wannabe pro skier from Alaska, paling around with two rookies. I enjoy being the teacher though and we had fun. We would go out into these super steep, short runs in the trees with the objective to see who had what it took to make the cut. Mark soon proved to be the stronger skier both physically and mentally, as Tom seemed to crack under the pressure, despite his macho posturing.

The season came to a close, Mark went back to Ontario to work and a summer passed. Vesna and I made our way to Whistler where I got a call from Mark back in Smithers in right after I got back from Saskatchewan. He was ready to ski and I told him to get down to Whistler if he wanted to take his skiing to the next level. I was able to find a place for him to rent and two days later he showed up, ready to go.

The tour out to Tremore was a beautiful day. We traversed up and around four smaller peaks on route to our objective. On the summit ridge there is worn path from heavy traffic. We sat on the summit and contemplated the season so far.

Back around Day 80 of my meditation I had an insight. I decided to start building skis for a business and Carpathian Ski Company was born. It was perfect! I already had the film company on the go and I had acquired skills with epoxy and fiberglass construction from back in the day when my dad paid me $3 and hour to do work on his boat while he was at work. I would put two and two together and it made more sense then anything I a long time.

When I told Mark of the idea originally he was pretty keen to be part of it. It was painful but I had to make it clear that I was setting out on that journey solo. I had 20 years of skiing with intention wrapped up I all of it and or paths might have to soon part.

The air was warm and the view was splendid I all directions. We decided to ski. Our line was off the north face and it was very hard ice. Luckily though, the pitch starts out steep but rolls out smooth across the glacier below. I went first and was amazed that despite my skis being turned sideways, I was not slowing down. I kept turning for show as I also kept accelerating until the lower pitch where I could turn them straight and them run. Way down the glacier I turned to see if Mark was following just in time to see him blast past me at about Mach 3 with a flapping coat and wild grin on his face. I turned in pursuit and raced down the mountain as fast as we could. I knew that Mark would be all right and that we would ski again someday.

I started driving at 4am on the morning of February 6, 2008. I drove for 18 hours straight from Pemberton, BC to Prince Rupert, BC. The last 3 hours from Terrace to Rupert were the worse. It was snowing harder then I had seen it snow in a while. With my dog Po as my co-pilot, I was road buzzed from driving solo for so long but was still keeping a good time, though I did almost go off the road in the slush just out side of Rupert. My flat deck truck was loaded to the gills with my snowmobile and my entire ski-building factory. I was going to get on the ferry and ride north to Haines, AK. From there I planned on driving to Anchorage where I would stay at my parents house for three months so I could build and sell Carpathian Skis. Carpathian Peak is the biggest peak in the area so I named my ski company after it. I also was planning on competing in three world championship events on my own gear at Alyeska Resort. It was an epic homecoming and I was excited.

With the first stage of my journey complete, I could relax for a couple of days on the ferry. It is a scenic voyage and I enjoyed the spirit of adventure. It seemed ironic that I was this Alaskan native with so much experience actually in Alaska but here I was no feeling like a green horn, rolling into new territory.

It was cold outside Juneau. Normally on the ocean the temperature is somewhat moderated, even in the winter it never will get too cold. This was different though as it was –25C and blowing hard as we chugged north to Haines. From Haines I would be stepping into the most hazardous stage of the journey. Outside of Haines, Alaska you cross the border back into BC and climb up to Haines Pass. As you descend the other side of the pass you cross another border into the Yukon. You are also going into the interior side of the Coast Range where the temperature drops precipitously. I was nervous as I departed Haines around 7am. I knew I was ‘going deep’ so to speak, but I was up to the challenge.

My main concern was my diesel truck. I had bad experiences in northern Saskatchewan with my work truck gelling up once it hit –40 Celsius. Right now it was –35 in Haines Junction, Yukon. I still had summer fuel in my truck and I knew that in Haines Junction they would sell cold weather diesel. As I descended the pass the temp dropped and my truck started to act up. It sneaks up on you. The gas pedal feels a little sluggish and she kind of stalls out a bit. Soon it stalls more and more then picks up again like there is no problem. I can feel the fear rising in my gut because I am in the middle of nowhere. There are not even people to hitch with on this spur highway and if I don’t get to town before the border closes at the end of the day, I am stuck.

I limped into Haines Junction and found a gas station. Apparently the temperature was dropping and no one was outside as I fiddled with the fuel pump. I could not get it to work. The gas attendant person told me that I was the first customer to use it for the day and that I would have to hold it in front of my idling exhaust pipe to thaw the pump mechanism.

Sure enough, after a few minutes of choking on exhaust, the pump would flow and I thought I was saved. I topped her up and started for the Alaska border some 300 miles north. This stretch is bleak with the mountains on your left and the cold interior plains on your right. It was deceiving though. The sun was out and it looked nice out from the heated confines of my truck cab. But when I stopped to take breaks of the side of the road, it quickly became clear that it was very fucking cold. I sensed that it might be colder then –40 but I was not sure. The truck was driving all right and I was going to make it home that night. Five minutes later the truck starts acting up. She feels sluggish in forth gear so I downshift and keep driving. Soon she is sluggish and stalling in 3rd so I drop to 2nd, then 1st. I am crawling on the side of the empty highway at walking speed and I am still 200 miles from the town of Beaver Creek, located right at the border.

Po is looking at me like he knows we are in trouble and he cowers next to me, slightly shaking. The truck dies. I don’t get out of the truck so as to preserve what tiny amount of heat I have trapped in the cab. I feel like crying at this point. A minute later I start the truck and resume walking speed. The fuel lines run past the engine and they will thaw if giving enough time near the engine heat. She stalls again. I wait five minutes and start crawling again. I know it is futile but like a good captain I do not want to abandon ship.

She stalls again and this time will not start. I have to hitch hike. It was about noon and there is usually a car or truck going by every half an hour. I stick my thumb out and get picked up by the first car. Everyone knows that if anyone needs help out here you had better offer assistance.

We left my truck and drove for two hours to the tiny border town of Beaver Creek. Not really a town but more like a motel, and gas station. I get dropped off near a couple of abandoned looking garages after the gas station person told me this is where the tow truck is. The place is sketchy and looks like it was last renovated in the fifties. I call the number and an old lady answered. She told me that her husband was out on a job but would be back in a couple of hours.

I go back to the gas station/motel and ask for a room. The guy starts lecturing me on why I am driving out there. “Don’t you know it is –55C out there? Not even the locals are driving! Blah, blah, blah.”

I got comfortable with the TV in the weird room I was in and waited for the call.

The next day was Sunday and the guy “would not go out until 10am to get my truck,” he told me. I waited all the next day and walked over to the garage around 4pm. They had my truck but she did not want to start. I guess it got down to –70C the last night, ushering in the coldest spell of the winter. I remember using the old pull start method back in Saskatchewan and sure enough she roared to life, like being resurrected from the dead.

Problem was that the heater did not work because it was frozen or something but I had to go anyway. The guy charged me $500 for the tow truck and bid me farewell. It was the warmest part of the day and oddly enough it felt balmy at –40C.

After taking 6 days to get to Anchorage, everything else felt easy. The Telepalooza 1st Annual World Extreme Telemark Championships almost caught me off guard. It was all right though, because with telemark boots these days and these super fat skis I was rocking, I figured that I would just ski the terrain that you could not telemark turn in anyway. I got away with it for the first day. I aimed for the heart of the ‘no fall zone’ as a confident alpine skier.

My first run was a super gnarly first descent and my second run I went bigger then ever before in my life with a 20-80ft double. I ended up in 5th place, as unfortunately the judges did not count Run 2 because some guy hurt himself and the last 10 guys did not get to ski so my score did not count.

In Day 2 of the Tele comp I was confident that I had a secret weapon. Everyone was poking around ‘the Prow’ area as I figured on going over into the ‘Postal Pocket’ area for better snow and longer steep sections. Right at the top of the run I piled into a chest deep fresh snow drift and front flipped right back to my feet and sent the slab rolling down ‘Christmas Chute’. The judges totally saw me roll as I made alpine turns down the lower, mellow terrain. I fell from 5th place to 25th.

Two days later the North Face sponsored Big Mountain Snowboard Masters comp began. It was fun because I could get on the lift and not have to talk to the telemark skiers anymore. Up until this point in my building season, I had constructed 19 pairs of skis. The day before the snowboard comp started I finished my first snowboard. This thing was as stiff as a 2×6 but she had clean lines. I am barely managing to turn this thing and end up in 11th overall at the end of it. Either says something about my riding or something of the state of snowboarding…

By now, according to my plan, I would be so immersed in competition mode that by the time the IFSA event came along I would have a mental advantage over the other guys. At first I was struck by the cult like qualities of the IFSA in general. Or more specifically if felt like a positive ‘spiritual group for athletes’. Compared to the two previous competitions I had just participated in, the IFSA definitely has a longer history, which leads to more ‘unity’, and an over all family feel. In the introduction meeting we were reminded to celebrate life and remember the people who had died doing what we all loved to do, which is rip big mountain lines. Tomorrow would be the one-year anniversary of Neal Valiton’s death in the Tignes World Championship event, so we all wanted to ski safe.

The next day the clouds were in and out but the skies remained mostly sunny. I was 5th from the end of a strong field of 75 male competitors. I had several hours to hike around on the venue to scope lines and watch other skiers. I could also hear the announcers at the bottom so I knew which skiers scored well on which lines. All I can say is that dudes were charging. I cringed a couple of times as there were several close calls coupling speed with exposure. There were a lot of tomahawks and you could tell that that some skiers were probably skiing faster then they ever had before on the long, steep, smooth run-out.

I eventually hiked up to the start right when John Nicoletta was charging into his line. I did not know who he was at the time. A moment later I noticed the group of ski patrollers nearby perking up to their radios in unison. A couple of them skied into the venue quickly then a minute later the rescue sled was dispatched from the top. Word was that they were performing CPR. A helicopter appeared soon thereafter and landed briefly then took off again without loading anyone. That is not good sign, I thought to myself. A few minutes later the organizers called off the event for the day.

John Nicoletta had died soon after sustaining severe head and chest injuries after rag-dolling right in the same spot I had watched those close calls earlier in the day. In the evening we were informed officially of his death. We were also told that the event would continue the next day following an early morning memorial at the top of the venue. I still felt kind of numb. I was not sure how the emotions would set in. I was not sure what to think.

We all hiked slowly and silently up the steep head wall boot-pack. At the top we were greeted by a stunning clear vista of all of the surrounding mountains of the mighty Chugach and the lesser-known Kenai Range to the south. These are my favorite mountains in the world. I grew up hiking from peak to peak trying to forever expand my vision of the area. The views compelled me to do so. As I stood there I realized that I had climbed every single peak that you could see at one time or another over the previous 12 years.

It was not the loving memories of John’s friends that piqued my emotions. It was standing there in the familiar trance that the stunning view evokes. I suddenly felt extreme sadness for John’s family and friends but I felt more sadness for John who would never get to look across these mountains again.

After the memorial everyone who had skied the day before the accident got a free run down to the bottom while the remaining competitors, myself included, had to get back into competition mode. It all seemed silly. The only reason I skied was because I said I was doing all three comps come hell or high water, so I felt I had to.

The snow had changed but I stuck with my line. After an air I skidded a turn, flipped backwards but then managed to regain control in mid flip. I slashed two turns into a nice, long, low air into fresh powder and sunlight. I ended up in 54th place. I retired from 10 years competitive big-mountain skiing at the end of that run.

The week before the competitions started there was fund-raiser for my old friend Fred Bull. As it turns out he had been battling a rare form of brain cancer for several years and was in need of money to complete his third operation. The doctors had been removing chunks of his brain in hopes of stopping its spread. Fred was there and I had not seen him in several years. He was as jovial as ever and about 300 people from the ski community showed up to support one of their own.

He was the one who literally instilled a sense of awe and respect for the Chugach Mountains in general and specifically, Carpathian Peak, the namesake of my company. It struck me as crazy that here I was trying to sell these skis while trying kill myself by skiing huge cliffs and showing off for the judges and here is my old friend dying of cancer. I really believed the surgery was going to work and I was taken in by his contagious lust for life, as I was 10 years ago when I first met him. Fred was so happy to see that I was building skis but he refused the pair I had brought as a gift for him. He preferred that I auctioned them off with the other stuff being auctioned to raise money.

After two weeks of being in ‘competition mode’ I was burnt out. My lovely and supportive wife, Vesna, and I went on a nice sailing trip into Prince William Sound then we made our way over to Valdez for a few snow mobile runs and then eventually back to Haines, where the ferry awaited to take us south to Prince Rupert and Whistler.

Fred and I never did ski Carpathian Peak and I have not to this day. It is kind of like the carrot on the stick but is also a place for gods and men turned to the heavens. Fred’s last goal of his life was to finish building a house for his wife and unborn daughter. They were living in Seattle where Fred was getting treatment and Fred knew he had to finish the house sooner then later. He did finish the house and his daughter was born a month later. Fred died one week after that.