Powder to the People!
Chugach Guides & inside lines on snow-fari season in AK
“A great day in the Chugach can be the best there is.”
– Henry Munter, CPG Gen. Manager
Ranging nearly seven million southcentral Alaska acres, with 30 percent ice-locked, the Chugach National Forest’s sprawling, coastal wildlands are considered among the top-three largest forests in the United States. Its mountainous ramparts span an area 250 miles long by 60 miles wide, rocketing from sea level to Mount Marcus Baker’s 13,176 feet in a mere 10 miles while bristling fourteen additional peaks surpassing 8,000 feet along the ascent.
Wild-hearted wanderers refer to its expanse as “Alaska’s backyard” while powder hounds plan by the wintery knowledge that the right day in the vast Chugach can mean the best ski and snowboarding conditions in the world.
The Glacier City Gazette, led by local snow pros Chugach Powder Guides [CPG], traverses both over and across a raw, crystalline realm to conclude, via cat-ski, its two-chapter special feature on Alaska’s adventurous backcountry.
Picturesque Notch Mountain, nestled three miles into Girdwood Valley, spools its tree-speckled topography past the storm-buffeted windows of a climbing Chugach Powder Guides [CPG] Snowcat.
Eight days worth of eighty fresh inches swirl atop the Chugach National Forest—forty in the last three days alone. It’s a backcountry endeavor far different than by helicopter.
Snowcat Operator David Fredericksen has churned CPG’s tank-treaded passenger cat to the morning’s first drop point, emitting twelve clients, two guides and a heap of gear into a howling, off-white maelstrom.
“You’ve gotta love it,” says veteran Powder Guide Rob “Durny” Durnell as he forces words through snow-clogged air. “Enjoying this snow via helicopter is very rare. It’s a cat-ski day.”
Four years of inadequate valley floor conditions had sequestered CPG’s two-cat fleet, but with all flights grounded and 2017’s low, solid snowpack, CPG clients sail upon this sugar sea via Snowcat or not at all.
Guides Durny and Tatiana Lawson run point, combining two decades CPG experience. Together they lead into dry, sifting drifts a crew comprising one lone wolf, two Aussies, three oil men and a five-card-hand of New York boys described as crossing cast of Hot Tub Time Machine with The Sopranos.
In addition to CPG-required avalanche transceiver the assemblage adopts safe travel practice by toting an otherwise optional airbag, probe and shovel.
“Today is a heads up situation,” said Operator David as he surveyed the surrounding mountains while off-loading gear. “Avalanche conditions are considerable, so stickin’ to trees is a good deal.”
Trees are exactly what the in-line troop of riders and skiers look to upon the rolling, snow-shrouded face. Through low visibility was brought on by heavy wind and close clouds, the bristly groves serve as topographical markers and anchorage against vertigo.
Amongst dune-piled trunks, the group finds shelter, solitude and Pow-Stash highways.
“This is the skiing capital of Alaska, with all the amenities to make ski adventure,” Durny said. “If there’s snow–and it’s able to happen–we’re skiing.”
Durny and Tatiana mark the descent zone and green light the group. Anxious energy ripples through the clients, a seemingly audible signal to rival the wind’s bellow. It’s the NYC crowd, two in particular, who voice the excitement universally felt. Gary and Larry encourage each other and co-clients with aptly applied, explicative-peppered amplitude. Tatiana gives signal and it’s one by one into mist…
Open space, compounded by deep snow, produces altered time.
Seconds, minutes, the points by which our days and lives are defined, fall away meaningless. Physical reality and perceptive sense co-mingle to create a single stretching instance of floating, velvet still; an infinitely named yet uniquely unnamable center point felt by all snow faithful and evidenced to be happily at home on Chugach lands.
“Alaska adventure is the biggest lore out there,” Durny said. “Once here, going off-path in The Last Frontier is the next step.”
“There’s something powerful about being able to dance in such landscape–and do so safely,” Tatiana added. “You feel alive, mindful and present; things we humans instinctively seek.”
“CPG works a lot on moving farther and deeper,” said Chugach Powder Guides General Manager Henry Munter, “and constantly learning each year’s differences. The most interesting aspect of exploration is then figuring out how to make more accessible those places that were once giant leaps. The history of what people have been achieving in Alaskan ski terrain is mind blowing.”
Henry’s grin recollects the accomplishments of Snowsport forefathers. “There’s no way of knowing where a first descent might be, but often you later learn of some guy who, twenty years earlier, trekked to ski that gnarly zone. To understand and be a part of that is humbling,” he said.
Back on slope, the Snowcat’s twelve clients have safely arrived to their final pick up. Encircling them is air of thankful humility that echoes Henry’s words. Completing the trip forms lasting comradery among individuals.
Behind them, tracks trace majestic snow-choked terrain and mark scenic overlooks while tallying approximately 15 miles of Snowcat travel and 10,000 vertical feet achieved in a single day.
“What we have here is special,” Durny said. “We get to live in this great place, Girdwood, with our families, yet we’re meeting new people and with them discovering new adventures in an open lifestyle.”
“It’s a culmination, for a guide, of parts that work in synthesis; taking groups to see something never before seen and bringing them back safely,” Tatiana said. “It’s kind of a miracle, really.”
For its offer of release through pure experience, Girdwood’s culture and skiing seem magnetic. The land’s waiting epic leads, ultimately, to appreciation: an itch that scratches itself.
“CPG takes pride in Girdwood,” Henry said. “Our guide community loves the valley, its deep heritage and skiing. Clients desire to experience that culture while skiing steep, far away and untouched zones. Every ounce of CPG effort goes to creating that for them.”
“When clients return,” he said, “it’s because a great day in the Chugach can be the best there is.”