Winter 2023

From Peak to Sea

By Craig Wolfrom

A group of backcountry skiers realized their dream of taking on the remote mountains of Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park.

After four days of inclement weather, sailing through swells as high as 8 feet, navigating a dinghy around motor-stalling sea ice, and skiing through whiteout snow squalls and three avalanches, we awoke to bluebird skies. The glassy Pacific Ocean reflected jagged mountains glowing in the early morning’s light. Our floating campsite, a 35-foot Beneteau sailboat, gently bobbed in Northwestern Fjord, which is carved into the southern shore of Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park. That brilliant morning, our dream of skiing in stellar conditions from mountain peaks down to the sea was looking like it would become a reality.

 

The blue line shows the group’s route from Seward to Harris Bay and back. ©KAREN MINOT


Our small group rallied to get the backcountry ski gear — avalanche transceivers, shovels, extra clothing, first-aid kit, food and water — loaded into the dinghy quickly, knowing all too well that the weather could change for the worse any minute. Once on shore, we adhered our climbing skins to the bottom of our skis, shouldered our backpacks and zigzagged our way up a glacier through boot-deep powder that became lighter and softer the higher we climbed. The sun steadily shone through an azure sky. On south-facing aspects, avalanches slid toward the valley floors with unsettling frequency, but on the northern slopes, where we were, an intense stillness held.

The natural beauty and quiet of backcountry skiing make it an exhilarating, nearly sacred experience for devotees. Alaska is a holy land where thousands of thrill-seekers undertake annual expeditions to ranges such as the Chugach or Talkeetna mountains. Our foursome of Idaho and Montana skiers were bent on an adventure that would take us even farther off the grid. We found a willing boat captain — who is a ski enthusiast to boot — and after months of careful planning, we set sail in early April from the small Alaska town of Seward to spend 10 days exploring and skiing in Kenai Fjords. The 670,000-acre park boasts dozens of glaciers and scores of peaks, most of which are unnamed; the highest reaches 6,450 feet. Just a fraction of the park’s visitors — 412,000 in 2021, most of whom traveled there in the summer — hire bush planes or venture off the park’s only road or disembark from their sightseeing boats to ski and hike. So for those like us seeking a remote backcountry adventure, the park is an unparalleled playground.

We finished the day’s climb at 3,500 feet above sea level atop a ridge. On one side of the mountain, we could see our trail through the snow and the sailboat far below; the opposite view revealed bay after glacially carved bay extending south all the way to the Gulf of Alaska. We ate a quick lunch then stripped the skins from our skis and pushed off, letting gravity pull us into the downhill powder turns we’d been picturing for months. After skiing halfway down, we stopped, put our skins back on, then used our existing track to climb back up for another run.

Over and over we did this, until our lungs were spent and our legs could not take another turn. As golden afternoon light washed over the mountains, we skied down to the edge of the ocean. After clicking out of our bindings, we dug up the beers we had buried in the snow that morning. Then we sat quietly on the shore by the dinghy, sipping our drinks and grinning and staring with wonder at the glistening tracks we’d left behind.

The joy of cutting fresh tracks. ©CRAIG WOLFROM


About the author

  • Craig Wolfrom

    Craig studied photography and creative writing at Montana State University, Bozeman, where he fell in love with backcountry skiing and spent time deep in the mountains. He now lives with his family in Hailey, Idaho, where he continues to nurture his passions for shooting photos, writing and skiing.

This article appeared in the Winter 2023 issue

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