AK Pilgrims • Snowboard Canada 2014 • Back

I think there’s something real in the notion of a holy place.  Mecca, Jerusalem, the Ganges River– these places and others like them have a way of speaking to people.  There’s a lingering energy that lives in them, reinforced by the zealous urgency of pilgrims, which speaks to those tuned to hear through culture and tradition– through stories.  For the faithful, visits to these places are communion with ideas born of collective fascination and spiritual expression, of intergenerational devotion.  In that, I think there’s something real.  But then, AK dreamin’ caught me early.

Alaska was more than a “one day” to me, more than a goal or an ambition.  The spine walls that I saw in movies like Pop and Futureproof did more than get me stoked; AK gave me purpose.  If I could stand on top of one of those lines, isolated and raw, feeling like a kid looking down the free- fall waterslide, and drop in... if I could point my nose towards the crest of a spine and cut back, confident and competent, towards its funnel and my sluff, down a thousand metres of sustained steeps, I knew I’d be there– in a transcendent moment of alignment between dreaming and action, through selves past and present, where the farthest reaches of my mental life fell one- to- one against what I could see, what I could feel.  AK gave me something to become, it reached for me through every turn, every moment on and off my snowboard that made me feel I was on track.  Road tripping to Nelson, sleeping in the Baker parking lot, cutting skins for my first splitboard, through it all I felt AK.

And there I was, leaving Whitehorse, YT.  I’d been on the road working stories for two weeks, since Monday, March 24th, and in that time I’d seen more trailheads than showers.  Dave Henkel, Cam Unger, Joel Loverin, and Heather Dufty would meet me at Carcross, a little crossroads town steeped in Klondike personality.  It was late; I was driving through fog and snow.  My old man’s bluegrass albums put a cool spin on the night, making a regular honky- tonk of my camperized CR-V.  The road felt familiar, with mountains not too far ahead.  Snowflakes curled across my windshield as gusts hit the car, infrequent reminders that the open landscape was alive.

We were the only people out at Carcross, as we met with hugs and high fives.  Henkel, Cam, and I had met years earlier, on a splitboard trip to Utah.  Those boys taught me a lot on that trip, and I’d both looked up to them and called them friends since.  Joel I knew from Whistler, we’d had our share of hill days and a couple of hut trips together.  I’d always loved riding with Joel; chasing him through trees had made me a better rider more than once.  Heather was a relatively new face; I’d met her once before on a long tour in the Duffy Lake area, but hadn’t seen her since.  Still, it had been clear then, just as it was at Carcross (as she kicked snow from Henkel’s wheel wells), that she wasn’t out of place on snowboard adventures. “It’s good to see you Davey,” Henkel said, welcoming me with warm eyes and a half smile, “shall we hit the road?”

I was lucky to travel with this crew, and felt it as we pulled onto the highway.  Our convoy was two trucks (a Craigslist- special camper filling the bed of Henkel’s), four sleds on two trailers, and my CR-V with its borrowed roof box and homemade bed.  It was ragtag, but it would work.  Our little motorcade, our roving home for Gore- Tex beatniks, reflected the reputation that years of Whistler- based snowboard exploring had won for Henkel, Cam, Joel and Heather: a reputation for making it happen.  Largely without sponsorships, some years without even new boards, that posse had hussled past the masses season after season, with sled/split approaches into rowdy backcountry zones that many of Whistler’s resident pros ignore.  They were exactly who I wanted with me– I couldn’t think of any better crew to crack Alaska, to decode the terrain that lay ahead of us.  I was stoked.

Our destination was the White Pass, a stretch of mountains that sprawls from Canada into the port- town of Skagway, AK.  We reached it in a cloud, and the thickest snow the night had seen.  I thought of past trips through the Kootenays as the road wound close to cliffs, hinting mountains hidden in the storm.  Brake lights went on ahead of me at each potentially ridable band, and as we picked our way deeper into the mountains we took in what we could, all the while imagining ourselves on snowboards.

That night we slept in Skagway, overshooting the White Pass parking lot in the fog.  It was a good thing; we needed supplies.  We woke with finding groceries and a rope for glacier travel as our first tasks for the day.  In a way we were in step with a great Skagway tradition– the town made history in the last years of 19th century, outfitting adventurers drawn by the Klondike Gold Rush.  Prospectors would land at Skagway and seeks out months’ worth of supplies, before hiking the White Pass hoping themselves worthy of gold.  We leaned into the culture with “yeehaw”s, and may have offended a local or two as we found what we needed and loaded up.  It was just after noon when we fired up the vehicles, separating ourselves from the prospectors, and headed toward the mountains.

Things looked different in the daylight, and though the night’s weather hadn’t quite rolled we saw a new world as we climbed into the pass.  The roadside cliffs had been deceptive, this wasn’t a Kootenay playground– it was another planet.  The mountains we could see climbed into what lingered of the fog, forbidding proper comprehension of their stature.  All we knew was they were big.  And as we jumped on the last hours of light, turning our caravan into a makeshift settlement, I felt traces of what had called me, licks of the energy I’d known through AK fantasies.  This was where snowboarding had been leading me, telling me I had to be– where my dream would start its spill into the world.

That evening, as we finalized the layout of our camp, a yellow sunset broke through what remained of fog, lighting up the mountains and showing for the first time what was ours to explore.  It must have spoke to Henkel loudest, because he was the first to start his sled.  We scrambled to follow suit as he rode towards the closest null, a short and safe lap to celebrate the start of our adventure.  He’d left without a word.  I was doubling with Cam, the rush of sledding coming back with the wind, and as we gained the little hill I was struck– that little bit of elevation had put us square against a sea of peaks, now golden in the day’s last light.  They overtook me, shook me.  I felt exposed, as if stripped down; in that moment I may well have been a child.  What pretense I had built in years of preparation fell away among the ancient giants, and for a moment there was only me.  I snapped to as Cam slowed the sled, and offered me the run.  Strapping in was giddy– this was it.

We explored the next three days, pressing deep into the mountains on sleds.  The terrain was incredible, but in the shallow snowpack most zones limited us to window- shopping.  What we got was good; some short north facing slopes would let us wet our feet with quasi- technical terrain.  We rode well, but the conditions demanded conservative thinking– we couldn’t step to the sorts of runs that we’d imagined.  Still, those days were amazing.  We stretched our legs with a few splitboard climbs, and though we deemed them unsafe I saw peaks that had me genuinely gripped, walls that on good years must form once- in- a- lifetime spines.  Just that gave me satisfaction, made me feel some personal growth.  The mountains were becoming real, entering my realm of understanding, and I felt myself a better rider for it.

In the nights we were akin to drifters, trading stories underneath old moons.  We had fires, there in the parking lot, and sat for hours debriefing the days and discussing options for the next weeks.  Haines was a recurring topic, a short ferry ride away and more likely to be caked.  The spot we’d thought of as our eventual destination.  We were real, as we talked; each of us felt honest in those mountains.  The fourth night made us privy to one of nature’s more mystifying phenomena: an unfiltered display of northern lights, in full bands, sweeping wide against clear skies.  Our fire closed an eerie gradient, its orange glow fading into the greens and pinks of the lights, which danced to foreign rhythms in their theater of stars.  Those nights we got to know each other as people seldom do, as humans at the bleeding edges of experience.  None of us held back in telling of our motivations or our pasts, in sharing with the others exactly who we were.

And there was something strange in me.  I was somehow separate.  In a moment of reflection, I felt something that I hadn’t seen coming, something the air’s honesty would not hide.  This was it.  This was the dream, and it would come to an end.  I looked around the fire, looked at my friends.  Listened to Joel a moment, as he told the troubles of a friend back home.  After this I would have done it, lived the only guiding dream I’d ever had.  Soon we’d be in Haines, where the lines I’d built my life around were waiting.  Those lines were a week away at most.  Joel took a pull of beer, looked down.  His story was about a buddy who’d got into it with drugs, who’d ended up strung out.  He’d just told us how he’d looked away the last time that he saw him, driving in his hometown, how he knew the guy would jump in his car if he made eye- contact, wanting money and a ride to some meet- up.  Life was flooding back.  Heather and Cam were shooting photos of the lights; Henkel nodded in the fire’s glow.  It was his turn to tell a story.

The feeling would ebb, as the night turned to wandering about the lot, to watching the otherworldly lights.  Beers would water it down, as Henkel and Cam and I reminisced on Utah.  The next day I’d feel normal, as we packed and drove to Skagway.  And the rush of the adventure would have me once again, as us pilgrims pulled aboard the ferry that would take us to Haines– to the freeride Mecca that had shaped our sport, and with it our obsessions.

Haines was all of my favourite places in the world, rolled together into one.  The ocean put me in Ucluelet, the mountains back in Whistler.  The town was Nelson, the shops Tofino.  The bar was Westport.  We caught a ride to a party on the back of a truck– that was Farellones.  And everyone we met was genuine.  The mountains were more than what we’d imagined, more featured than what we’d seen at the White Pass.  The energy was alive, vivid.  I could feel all that I’d poured into the place, all the passion that my years of AK dreamin’ had produced.  And it grew, as we talked to the locals, as we familiarized ourselves with the town.   Haines is closely tied to its mountains, and many residents have a close ear to what’s happening in the snowboard scene.  Through them, the story of Alaskan big mountain riding was evolving day by day.  “Manuel rode Dr. Seuss,” we heard, “those Shades of Winter girls are teeing up the Dirty Needle.”  “Tomahawk might be good, you’ve heard of Tomahawk right?”  The way that people talked about the runs gave them personalities, histories of their own.  It made the mountains characters, contributors to the culture and the stories it produced.

After a few days of reconnaissance, we had everything in place– a beautiful camp spot on the Chilkat River, a decent understanding of the sled access, enough food to keep us going, and a fishing license for Joel.  We’d met another pilgrim as we’d asked our way through town, a Utah ripper named Cody Hughes.  He’d been in town a couple weeks and knew the way into the Jarvis Glacier, which toes into the heli- tenures and offers sledders dream terrain.  It was a low snow year, which made glacier travel dangerous– we wouldn’t be able to assume the crevasses had bridged over.  But Cody joined us, played guide for a day, and we had no problems.  We were glad to have his knowledge, just as he was glad for riding partners.

We took some easy warm- ups, some mellow skin- up flow laps, before eyeing up a beauty of a run called Passing Lanes.  It started with a long, prominent spine, before funneling through rocks into a fanning, open runout– it would be the first line I rode that screamed AK.  We climbed for it, through changing snow and ice, assessing safe zones as we went, feeling for the mountain’s energy as it flowed throughout the group.  At the crux of the climb, I shot a look to Henkel as I strapped my crampons.  I think he recognized what I was feeling– full immersion in a living dream, a moment of overlap between the worlds inside my head and out.  He saw me exactly where, and exactly as, I wanted to be.

That night we’d meet two more: Talon Gillis and Cam Browne.  Talon is a beast of a snowboarder, a stylist who’s driven by aesthetics and unafraid of big exposures.  Joel recognized him from a photo he’d seen floating around the Internet, a shot of Talon peeling sluff off of a thin finger he’d hiked for, above a 100-foot don’t- fall- kind- of cliff.  Cam, a 22- year old skier, had no trouble winning the respect of the crew as he told stories at the night’s fire.  He’d seen more of Whistler’s backcountry than most his age, and had enough ideas for future trips to turn a regular saga of his life. Tomas Santa Maria, a Chilean I’d met two years earlier, would join the morning after.  Tomas’ skills in the backcountry are some of the best in Chile, but for all of his snowboarding talent, it’s his attitude that sets him apart.  The guy’s among the most grateful I know, and brought appreciation out of all of us.  We were a merry bunch, a happy gang of wanderers reveling in our sideways times.  And what was next would be the best day of my snowboarding life.

Since arriving in Haines, we’d toyed with the idea of burning through our budgets with a heli day, and just as Tomas arrived I got a call from Ryan at Alaska Heliskiing.  “We’ve got a bird for you tomorrow,” he told me, “and it’s looking like it might be our last day of flying.”  It was April 19th, almost a month since I’d left home.  We talked about it as a crew and agreed it had to happen.  It was a decision that would make my trip home hungry­– but then, I figured, my pilgrimage could use a fast.

Heli- boarding was indulgence; it was fast- paced, hedonistic joy.  Without contest, it was the most fun I’ve ever had.  We got lucky with out guide, a ripper named Jesse– he got our number quickly and took us straight to goods.  Our runs were split between Venue and The Dirty Needle, classic walls that let us open up, with long spines and opportunities for airtime.  Watching my friends, both old and new, flow down those walls was incredible.  All we’d put in to getting there, the unique love affairs we’d each had with snowboarding, the planning we’d done as a group, had led us to a truly incredible place.  Our lives, our individual journeys, had intersected in a way that none of us will forget, on something we could only measure with high- fives and ear- to- ear smiles.

Driving back to camp, Tomas had exactly the right words.  “In Chile,” he said, “we call each mountain an apu.  It means, like, spirit.  Each of them is different.  These man, these are some big apus.”  Later that night I thought on what he said, thought about each mountain that I’d met, not just in Haines but throughout my life as a snowboarder.  I thought about what they’d shown me, what I’d felt of them, and a seed of an idea was planted.  Looking back, I think it’s this: Don’t think of your snowboarding as a linear progression.  Instead, see it as a creative development, balanced with the rest of you and exploratory to its core.  It’s not the kind of thing that ends, but part of a conversation, a dialogue between you and the mountains.  At the White Pass I worried over what was next, but next has always been snowboarding– because snowboarding is living.