Feature Stories

Arctic to Indian – Skiing in the Chugach Mountains

Arctic to Indian

The mountains overlooking the city of Anchorage are known as the Chugach Front Range. They stand somewhat apart from the rest of the Chugach Mountains, separated by a notable valley in which runs the mostly clear waters of Ship Creek. This creek, with its final quarter-mile providing an urban wild salmon fishery, is unlike any other stream in the world. Throughout much of the summer anglers line the bank, practically shoulder to shoulder in the shadows of downtown Anchorage’s taller buildings, to land king and silver salmon for their supper tables. It’s a remarkable wedding of wild Alaska and the modern city.

Our journey began several miles upstream, a full month prior to the start of the combat fishing scene, where Ship Creek pours forth from the snowy mountains. Roughly half way to Eagle River on the Glenn Highway, not 5 miles out of town, an exit leads to Arctic Valley Road. Soon after exiting the highway and passing Moose Run Golf Course, the pavement gives way to well-compacted dirt as the road begins a winding journey up the side flanks of Mount Gordon Lyon. Just before reaching the parking lot at the base of Arctic Valley Ski Area, a smaller parking lot on the right marks the trailhead for the 22-mile winter traverse to Indian, a community on Turnagain Arm.

The sweeping view of the valley below and beyond gives the skier some idea of what lies ahead. From my vantage point, I could look out and see the various areas I had experienced before. I’ve hunted in this valley numerous times, most often for ptarmigan. I took note of a notch three miles distant where I helped my friend bring down and butcher a bull moose.

I’ve attempted this winter traverse three times in the past, and failed each time to make it to the other side of the mountains. My first try began with one member of our party breaking a ski literally in half during the first half mile of the descent down into the valley. Twenty minutes later I fell and tweaked my ski binding, resulting in my foot being set at a 30-degree angle to the ski—not a sustainable situation for a 22-mile trek. On my second attempt, I made it five miles in before breaking a ski. On my last try before this trip, a friend, Wally, and I got a bit more than a third of the distance to Indian Valley, at which point I broke through some oddly thin ice for that time of the year and dropped mid-thigh deep into a chilly beaver pond. My boot froze to my binding, making it impossible for me to clear the mud and ice from my skis without taking off my boots, and, of course, I was soaked. So those three trips ended in failure, or rather Arctic-to-Arctic instead of Arctic-to-Indian. I’m not superstitious, but I was starting to think this valley was out to get me. However, I am a career optimist, and I felt my luck in the valley had changed for the better after the successful moose hunt, so I had high hopes for my fourth attempt at completing the traverse.

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Our group, including my friends, Mark, Owen, and Pete, picked a gem of a day for our adventure. We all had to don our shades right from the get-go and wore them all day. We were getting our skis and packs ready without much thought about the other activities in the parking lot, when all of a sudden, BAM!! An SUV that had been trying to park slammed into the bumper of a parked truck. We watched the driver, who turned out to be a bit of an idiot, try to maneuver his vehicle and end up skidding helplessly down the parking lot into a snowbank, narrowly missing other cars. We helped him by pushing on his bumper while he spun the wheels. Eventually, we got him moving back toward the road, but he surprised us yet again by parking next to the truck he had hit. I guess he figured he would have better luck going out than he had coming in. We didn’t stick around to find out. My car had performed just fine in the lot, so we wrote it off to bald tires and poor driving skill.

With the hope that I would not return to a dented car, we plunged into the woods and down the narrow meandering trail to the valley floor below. It was a little sketchy at first, as the trail drops about 1000 feet of elevation in just 3 miles. On cross-country skis, with little or no room to turn or slow down, I crashed numerous times, my only effective means of stopping. By the time we almost reached Ship Creek, I was soaked from the knees down, my toes ‘swimming,’ and I was starting to realize my pack was too heavy, and my skis were too squirrelly for the conditions.

The correct skis for a trek like this should have metal edges, sturdy bindings, a fish-scale pattern under the feet for gripping the snow, and a decent width and length to achieve good “flotation” on the snow. I had a set of skis like that … but I broke them the prior season, so instead I was attempting this trip on short, skinny skis with no metal edges, flimsy bindings, and smooth bases that rely on repeated applications of “kick wax” for grip on the snow, which doesn’t work that well for above-freezing temps. Did I mention the forecasted highs were in the 40s?

Things got worse and worse as I struggled with my not-ideal setup. At one point, I broke through the thick top crust of snow and wallowed in a deepening pit for about two minutes, trying several times to regain my balance only to slip, topple, break through the crust, and end up in the bottom of my pit again. Literally furious, I finally clicked off my skis and put on my snowshoes. Relieved at being out of my hole, I strode down the trail a few paces, punched through the crust, and promptly fell on my face. I did this three more times before ending up at the bottom of the hill in poor spirits thinking I had a tiresome day ahead of me!

I really should have been smarter. I’ve done a LOT of skiing over the past seven to eight years, and know what constitutes acceptable gear for a trek of this sort. Mark’s ski setup was much better suited for the day, being similar to the skis I broke the previous season. Owen’s setup was optimal, though. He was using a very wide and stiff ski, almost like an alpine ski, with a sturdy metal edge and fishscale grip pattern underfoot. He was wearing rigid plastic boots with three-pin bindings that provide a much more solid connection to the skis, making it dramatically easier to control them. He could go up anything we could go up, and he was having a ton more fun on the downhills with the added control and responsiveness. Well … at least I know exactly what to shop for now.

After the first three miles of descent, the trail meets up with the babbling waters of Ship Creek and follows it upstream at a gentle, but steady incline all the way to the top of the pass. I switched back to my skis, added a fresh glopping of kick wax, and fell in line with the others. We crossed the creek several times on ice bridges, some pretty skinny that would likely disappear over the next week or so. For the next eight miles, or three hours of skiing, the trail popped in and out of the woods, on and over the creek, up and up. We stopped from time to time to take photos, have a few handfuls of trail mix, drink some water, and catch our breath.

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The day wore on and we worked steadily up and back in a large arc, with the furthest back peaks of the Chugach Front Range to our right and the endless sea of larger Chugach Mountains rising to our left. At one resting point we had a stunning view of a group of approximately 7,000-foot tall peaks, including Ewe Peak and several others with a musical instrument naming scheme: Concerto Peak, Calliope Peak, and Triangle Peak (I’m not sure if this is a musical instrument reference or not, but it stands with the others, including Synthesizer Peak and Flute Peak, which we couldn’t see.) These large, shear peaks stood out crisp and sharp in the clear air, jagged teeth slicing up into the baby blue sky. It was breathtaking.

At this point, we had climbed out of the lower valley up onto a bench that flirts with the tree line. We were mostly out of the trees, only occasionally passing through an isolated stand of trees or shrubs. A couple miles later, we left the trees behind altogether as the trail flattened out for the last four or five miles toward the top of Indian Pass.

We could see the pass up ahead, a notch in the wide valley where tall mountains on either side constrict the land into a narrow gulley. It looked far away. We still had a good amount of distance to cover, and I was starting to feel the effects of the long day and the heavy pack. Good thing I decided to bring along my .22 rifle, since we’d seen a grand total of zero rabbit tracks thus far. The six to eight extra pounds turned out to be completely for naught.

Despite the bright and strong sun, there was a stiff breeze in our faces as we reached and crossed over the pass. With the steady effort of the ascent, we had stripped down to T-shirts, but as soon as the trail flattened out, allowing our pulses to come down a bit, we all got our jackets and gloves out and prepared for the cooler trip down into Indian Valley.

My stomach dropped a little as we crested the pass. The steady and gradual climb up from the other side was nothing like the abrupt drop off now in front of us. The trail disappeared into a narrowing valley before us, and I started to absolutely dread what lay ahead of me, given my lackluster performance on the initial downhill portion at the start of the day.

Thankfully, Owen came to the rescue. He offered to switch packs with me, commending me for lugging it all the way up, but pointing out that his ski setup was much more accommodating for the added, off-balance weight of the heavy pack. I resisted at first, but he finally postulated that I would do the same for him in the reverse situation, and he was right. So I swapped my 45 lb pack for his 3 lb pack, and not a moment too soon, because the trail was about to get a little crazy.

We skied down into the valley about a half mile, enjoying the nearly treeless slopes on either side of the trail. We could basically go anywhere we wanted, although we gave the steeper-sloped valley walls a wide berth. Evidence of recent avalanches down the sides of the valley got our attention almost as much as the small slides we saw actively tumbling down to the floor of the softer sloping center of the valley. No need to get too close to that business!

I let my three companions ski ahead of me and watched them come to a stop in the distance, quite a good drop below me. It was my turn to tackle the downhill on my suboptimal skis. I was hoping for a better performance than this morning. It would literally add hours to our adventure if I needed to give up on the skis and wear my snow shoes for the 6-mile descent. However, a couple turns in I was reassured I would be just fine. I didn’t have the utmost control of my skis, but I had enough to make it down, and have fun with it. I came to a skidding stop next to the other three, and they looked at me with thinly masked surprise. “Wow. That heavy pack sure makes a difference!” I said. They all agreed, and on we went.

Owen didn’t seem to mind the weight of my pack too much. He kept out in front of us, skiing with style and having fun as we made our way down toward the Turnagain Arm, which was now visible. Oddly enough, I had three bars of cell phone service, so I was able to phone Wally back in Anchorage and give him a good ETA for meeting us at the trailhead in Indian.

As we continued to lose elevation, the presence of trees became more of a navigational concern. We rather abruptly transitioned from going wherever we pleased, to a narrow path hemmed in by trees and a winding creek, with twists, turns, dips, dives, drop-offs, and all sorts of fun features. Well, maybe they would have been fun with better skis and without almost 20 miles of arduous skiing already logged by our legs and bodies. As Owen said, the “bobsled run” through the trees at the end of this traverse is the stuff of legend in Anchorage. I just hoped we would all make it out alive!

The sun had made its way behind Homicide Peak and Indian House Mountain to our right, and the noticeable drop in temperature was having a tangible effect on the snow quality. The soft snow was transforming into ice, making our skis at once much faster and much more difficult to control. Thankfully, as we drew closer to the end of the trail, the grade lessened, so that we were always just barely holding it together. Owen and Pete stayed ahead of Mark and me. Mark was running out of steam and starting to just run on fumes. I was hoping he would make it to the bottom without killing himself from skiing out of control, or killing me out of spite.

I went a little ahead of him to feel out the trail, and because my skis, in particular, were now traveling at speeds up to 1,000 miles per hour (est.). I would let him know when the trail was mellow enough to just “shoot it,” or I would caution him when things got a little trickier, shouting warnings like, “Go a little slowly through the next part; there are some sharp curves,” and, “Careful at the bottom of the hill not to fall down the 8-foot hole into the creek,” and, “I just ended up in a tree, so, you know, FYI.”

The very last half mile was a nice and smooth downhill glide through a tall spruce forest. Owen, Pete, and a can of Genny Cream Ale were waiting for me in the parking lot, and Mark wasn’t far behind. We had just enough time to enjoy our victory beers before climbing into Wally’s truck and riding back to my car at the starting point. We ended the 22-mile journey in 8 hours, almost to the minute, which is not too bad a pace.

I guess the curse is broken. This trip involved its share of hardships, but with no broken gear, no falling into beaver ponds, and no other catastrophes, we made it from Arctic Valley to Indian. I will definitely do this traverse again in years to come, hopefully learning from my mistakes, bringing better skis and a lighter pack!

Greg Latreille was born and raised in the small, rural town of Malone in the northernmost part of New York state, 10 miles from the border with Canada. Directly after completing college, he moved to Alaska to pursue a career in structural engineering and outdoor pursuits in the Great 49th State. He has been working as a structural engineer for Anchorage-based BBFM Engineers, Inc., since then, and is now an associate at that firm.

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