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Writing

Features, stories, and reported articles written by Julie Brown.

Wonderland

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A skier’s quest to find her dream line in the greatest skiing state—Alaska

Published in POWDER Magazine (45.3) | November 2016


“Can you see it? The chairlift on the ridge?”

Cody Barnhill steered the minivan north on Anchorage’s Glenn Highway. It was morning rush hour. The nondescript cityscape of an American suburb passed by the window: strip malls and pawn shops, dead trees that looked like skeletons, Vietnamese phở joints, beige one-story buildings with flat roofs and melting icicles. It was a view like any other neighborhood street, until you looked up. Beyond the city haze, dividing the streets from the clear sky, the front range of the Chugach cut across the horizon. Our destination, the chairlift Barnhill pointed to, was a local ski hill 15 miles outside the city. Hardly the extreme skiing paradise typically associated with Alaska, Arctic Valley offers 1,200 vertical feet of blue-collar cruising.

Anchorage is not a ski town. It is oil. It is military. It is diverse. Offices for BP, Exxon Mobil, and ConocoPhillips Alaska are located downtown; the latter is headquartered in the state’s tallest building at 22 stories. The 79,000-acre joint Air Force, National Guard, and Army base is home to more than 41,000 civilian and military personnel and their families. The Anchorage School District is among the most diverse in the country, with students speaking 100 different languages. And yet, Anchorage is also the capital of one of the world’s largest recreation destinations. Alaska is skiing’s mecca, a bucket-list item for those who can afford $10,000 heli trips to ski the fluted spines, miraculous snow, and steep vertical walls. 

But I did not come to Alaska to go heli skiing. Nor to eat Alaskan king crab legs in a mountain lodge. I came here to find the real Alaska: isolated, cold, weird, enormous, and, caked with snow, land both extracted for wealth and preserved for enjoyment. People come to the 49th state to chase a dream or run away from something. I fell in with the latter—running from a cubicle in an office park. Alaska became my mantra. I fantasized about the wild beauty and rawness of the state. I dreamed of a chunk of land so big, with so few people, you could slip away into solitude. To find it, I would ride a slow double chair with the locals at Arctic Valley. I would hike for lines with an Anchorage backcountry skier. And I would follow a determined mad man into a white cloud at the top of Thompson Pass in Valdez. Photographer Robin O’Neill and filmer Hennie van Jaarsveld joined me. Barnhill, who grew up in Anchorage, took the wheel. 

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The Anchorage Ski Club and the military base opened Arctic Valley in the 1940s, but the military shut down their side of the mountain in 2002. They tore down the historic ski lodge with the stone fireplace but left behind the missile silos pointed at Russia. Now, volunteers keep Arctic Valley’s two vintage double chairs and poma spinning, Saturdays and Sundays only. 

We booted up in the parking lot. A couple in camo ate lunch in the cab of their truck. Three toddlers dressed in bright colors followed their parents to the blue, two-story cafeteria. The only people skiing off the top of the mountain were two ski patrollers snaking turns in chalky wind buff: Mark Heysell, the president of the Anchorage Ski Club, and John Koltun, the former president of the Anchorage Ski Club. Heysell arrived by way of Oregon, Montana, and Colorado, where he saved up enough money to pack his life and his dog into a truck and point it north. Koltun lived in Anchorage for several years before finally driving up the hill to Arctic Valley 12 years ago. He’s been skiing here ever since.

“How do you describe love?” Koltun said, conveying his emotions toward the ski area. “A little less glitzy. A little more down home. We don’t have high-speed lifts, but we don’t need them.”

Arctic Valley, elevation 2,500 feet, is situated on a northwest-facing pitch that collects snow and keeps it cold. Patrol staggers operations, running one lift at a time, saving the best terrain for last. Tickets are $35, except for those under 7 or over 70, who ski for free. A busy day here will see 300 skiers, maybe. Most skiers in Anchorage drive the opposite direction toward Alyeska, which offers bigger terrain at a base elevation near sea level. When it rains at Alyeska, it’s a private powder day up here. But the true hidden secret to Arctic Valley is the backcountry access. Isolated couloirs drop off just beyond the boundary, diving into the infinite Chugach. 

We got the lay of the land in about two laps and spent the rest of the morning ripping fast turns. Lunch in the lodge was a variety of foods with melted cheeses: a quesadilla, nachos, a grilled cheese sandwich. We ate upstairs next to the bar, where a few regulars were sipping Alaskan Ambers and catching up on the week. Beth Koltun, the bartender, who is married to John, was about to pour another round when her customers convinced her to play hookie for a couple afternoon laps. She grabbed her knit gloves, zipped up her cotton hoodie, and walked to the lift.

The sun was high, giving us enough light to explore beyond the ski area boundary. Our group skinned up a ramp in 20 minutes and soaked in the view: an otherworldly dome of blue sky, massive bodies of arctic water below the snow-capped Tordrillo and Alaska ranges. A small earthquake rumbled earlier that day, and a plume of smoke erupted from Mount Redoubt. The sun dipped toward the horizon and washed the sky pink and orange. Denali stood on the horizon, king of all Alaskan mountains. If a unicorn had galloped up the mountain, it wouldn’t have seemed out of place. We skied toward the lodge as the sky turned gold, leaving just enough time to drink another round at the bar. It was March 12th. The sky finally darkened at 7:45 p.m.

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Later that night at the Barnhill residence, a live recording of the Grateful Dead played at full volume while a rack of ribs smoked on the grill and a bottle of Bulleit Bourbon sat open on the kitchen counter. Alaskan hospitality, where doors open and food is put on the table, was on full display at the small, warm home. “We’re fairly off the grid here,” Barnill said. “Off the grid, but still reliant on the system.” 

We were staying at Barnhill’s childhood home with his parents, Mark and Carol. In 1980, the newlyweds drove a blue Dodge truck with a pop-up camper from Colorado to Alaska and survived off wild salmon they caught. They settled down in a barebones A-frame with a view of the valley, the city, the ocean, and the mountains and spent the next 35 years building a home and a family. 

Barnhill remembers snowdrifts as tall as his house and blizzards that dumped so much snow they had to park the car a half-mile downhill. Barnhill and his younger brother, Dylan, were raised without electricity. “Mostly we had propane lanterns,” he says. With time, the A-frame became a two-story house. A hydroelectric power system now provides ample electricity—though a door on the second floor still opens to empty space. (A garage will come eventually.) Dylan moved to Nashville to play music, Barnhill to Salt Lake and then Sun Valley to ski. He is currently a student of energy systems engineering.

Our bellies full of ribs, heads foggy with whiskey, we slept well. The next morning, when the sky turned a dim blue, we met Charlie Renfro at the Huffman Carrs, a grocery store and the spot for Anchorage carpools heading toward Turnagain Pass. The mountains in Alaska are endless, yet options are limited by access. Resort skiers stick to Alyeska and the few mom-and-pop ski areas like Arctic Valley. Backcountry skiers like Renfro, on the other hand, get after it. 

We drove east along the Turnagain Arm, a long strip of water with mountains rising at sea level. Our eyes skimmed the water’s surface for any disturbance that might reveal a beluga whale. We passed Girdwood and crossed several bridges over glacial rivers. Three generations prior, Renfro’s grandfather, a banker who distributed loans to Alaska’s early homeowners, traveled regularly on this same route, a dirt road at that time, between Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula. Renfro, who also works in real estate, knows the area just as well as his grandfather. 

After booting up in a pullout off the highway, I followed Renfro down an icy path into the rainforest. Moss hung from branches and painted the rocks green. Mushrooms bloomed on tree trunks, stacked like a ladder. Clear water rushed down a riverbed, over rocks, twigs, and fallen logs—but the bridge had washed out. “Take your boots off.” Renfro was serious. I did as I was told, shouldered my gear, and stepped through the frigid, fast-moving, knee-high water—so cold my feet burned—and booted up again on the other side. 

The line Renfro had in mind was a long, north-facing ramp with an insanely beautiful backdrop—the kind in ski movies. From the top, we followed him up a ridge traverse to a valley sanctuary where spines rippled almost every mountain face. By the time I caught up, Barnhill had fashioned a picnic bench out of his skis and was halfway through his sandwich. Renfro was midway through digging a pit on slope.

Renfro reported that the top layer from the last storm cycle had yet to consolidate with the rest of the snowpack. My heart sank. I thought of my mom. The slope pulled us in, but we packed up and walked away. A powdery slope like this is Kryptonite to a skier’s vigilance. In the end, it was not the day to ski my Alaskan dream line. 

Instead, we skied low-angle pow back to the car. The snow was good and sugary—the kind that absorbs your weight and gives something back. We clicked out of our skis when we got to the river. This time, we kept our boots on and did our best to jump over it, inevitably splashing through the middle of the current and laughing hysterically. The sun fell behind the mountains as we unlocked the car and cracked beers. On the drive home, the water in Turnagain Arm held a mirror image of the mountains above. Little did we know, we wouldn’t see the sun again for five days. 

 

From Anchorage we drove north, then east, through the fishbowl-like Matanuska-Susitna Valley. The road is surrounded on all sides by mountains, glaciers, rivers, tundra, and dense forests full of pipe-cleaner pine trees. The directions to Valdez are simple: Drive four hours, turn right at Glenallen onto the Richardson Highway. We arrived well after 9 p.m. Town was dead. Blue lights from the oil station flickered. The only signs of life came from a bar called the Fat Mermaid. 

Valdez is ground zero. This is where the Alyeska Pipeline connects the state’s billion-dollar oil industry to the rest of the world. On March 24, 1989, a tanker infamously struck a reef in Prince William Sound and spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into the ocean. Out of that environmental crisis came investment to revitalize the community. Valdez used money earned from oil to indirectly fund events, including the first World Extreme Ski Championships, which kick-started the entire heli ski industry in Alaska.

“I came here in ’91 to compete in the World Extremes, and none of us knew anything about it,” Dean Cummings said.

I sat shotgun in Cumming’s truck. He was on a roll, recounting the crazy glory days when he and Doug Coombs stumbled upon the greatest discovery of their lives—the Chugach Range. His words spilled out like he had said them a few hundred times before. “We all knew it, Doug and the others, Shane and Seth,” he said. “We all knew that we were going to be a part of the next big thing.”

Matt Kinney arrived in Valdez more than a decade before the hoopla began. It was October 1979, and he was riding on a cutter with the U.S. Coast Guard. “Alaska was just mystical,” he said. “It was as far away from Tulsa as I could get.” His first memories here were idyllic: Locals having breakfast at the historic Tsaina Lodge and skiing the popular road run off Thompson Pass. Skinny skis, long green ski poles with yellow baskets, leather ski boots.

Nearly everyone who migrated from the Lower 48 had come to work construction on the pipeline. Kinney lived in Coast Guard housing. He bought a Nordic setup and taught himself to ski on the flats, often skiing to work. All the while, he couldn’t keep himself from looking up, and that motivated him. “I shied away from mountaineering,” he said. “I shied away from ice climbing. I just committed to skiing.” He consistently logged 60 to 70 days a season in leather boots and eventually, telemark equipment. 

There is another side to Kinney, too. He yells in people’s faces, foams at the mouth, spray paints anti-heli skiing messages in the snow, and was even arrested eight years ago. We found him in town, in a two-story blue building. Tattered prayer flags marked his door. He welcomed us inside. Public radio played on a boombox. We followed him to the living room where he had been studying the weather forecasts and looking at radar images on his computer. The clouds were stagnant. He pointed at a green blob moving in our direction. We could still ski close to town today. He suggested a spot called Benzene Alley, the first ski descent in the guidebook he penned, “Alaska Backcountry Skiing: Valdez and Thompson Pass.”

Kinney, 60, rambled about the Exxon Valdez oil spill, his activism, and the proliferation of snowmobiles on Thompson Pass as we drove. On the trail, his pace was slow and deliberate. He hunched over his poles, head down, focused. Of his 37 years as a skier, he’s spent less than 20 days at a ski resort. “I don’t acknowledge heli skiing at all,” he said. “I don’t acknowledge it for anything but what it is—heli skiing. It’s not backcountry skiing…To me, [helicopters] don’t even belong in the mountains.”

Clouds swirled overhead. Kinney transitioned out of his skins at the top quickly, like a pro, but as soon as he pointed his tips downhill I realized he was a better uphill skier. His long, awkward, telemark s-turns cut across the fall line. He face-planted twice. Granted, the snow was shit—breakable crust. Again, the Alaskan dream line I had been searching for remained out of reach.

The next morning, flakes as fat as my palm floated gently from the sky. There was no wind. In the high alpine it was only white, a down day. I woke up anxious in the middle of the night. Time ticked by slowly all day. Barnhill caught up on schoolwork in the hotel room. I explored town. Late that afternoon, Kinney called. He saw a break in the clouds on his radar. The storm was clearing up over the ocean and he predicted a crack of blue would hit Thompson Pass in an hour, just in time for sunset.

I didn’t believe him. Outside was still white, but we didn’t have anything to lose. Barnhill, O’Neill, and I picked Kinney up and reached the top of Thompson Pass just after 6 p.m. The only signs of life were passing oil trucks and a tent buried in a snowbank. By the time I clicked into my skis, Kinney was already out of sight, determined to ski. To think the sun would crest through clouds of this density was stubborn and mad. But we followed his tracks anyway, setting off at 6:45 p.m. A half hour later, we returned to the car defeated. I never saw the mountains on top of Thompson Pass. Such is life in Alaska. 

 

After several days of clouds, with no sun in the forecast for the region, Barnhill, O’Neill, van Jaarsveld, and I cut our time in Valdez short. We heard a rumor of sun in the direction of Anchorage, at Hatcher Pass in the Talkeetna Mountains. We woke up early and hit the road, which was caked in ice. Oncoming trucks roared past us with a storm of snow and exhaust swirling under their bellies and wheels. We drove north as the Alyeska Pipeline slipped in and out of view. 

The clouds kept up with us, then a crack of light shined through. It grew the farther west we drove and soon spread across the horizon. This was farming country. Sarah Palin lives somewhere nearby. The road narrowed and steepened. The Talkeetnas are an older mountain range and more windswept than the jagged Chugach. The bedrock is entirely granite, colored a deep black and brown. Gold once ran through its veins. Robert Lee Hatcher staked the first gold claim in 1906, and a rush to extract the land’s wealth followed.

Renfro was waiting when we pulled into the parking lot. Once again, the Alaskans—Renfro and Barnhill—led the way. To push myself uphill, I whispered an incantation: Higher. Higher. Higher. One breath. One step. Emerging from the gray into the bright sunlight, climbing 1,800 feet into the upper valleys—I felt a kind of privilege. An hour or so later, we stood at the top. 

Snow crystals filled the sky. Light reflected off the mountains and the clouds, casting purple and orange hues. Barnhill eyed a large ramp illuminated by the sun. The slope absorbed our voices as we called to each other across the ridge, discussing our options. It was the end of our journey.

Barnhill clicked into his skis and lowered his goggles. He skied down the ridge, dropped into the sun patch, and slashed a turn. It was deeper than he thought and a giant wave of snow flew up and over him, like a plume of feathers. Finally, I stood at the top of a true Alaskan line. A fat spine twisted out from beneath the tips of my skis. I stared it down until I gathered enough courage to drop in. My legs burned. The snow was soft, but also heavy. Down, down, down, I skied. The rush gave me all that I came to Alaska for: freedom, space. It was right here, I just had to ski it.