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How to Snowboard in Alaska on a Dirtbag Budget

Words: Cody Booth | Photos: Zach Clanton

Getting to Alaska had always been a dream of mine. Growing up I always thought it to be a snowboard Mecca or proving ground of sorts for big-mountain riding. I remember staring at issues of TransWorld in the mid-'90s hoping "someday." Watching pros in old Mack Dawg and Standard Films movies taught me that truly proficient snowboarders can ride anything in front of them—transition, rails, jumps, and powder. Yet Alaska remained as the final test piece.

A couple thousand feet to the glacier below allows me to remind myself whether it's frontside or backside turns that I love most. Turns out, sometimes it's hard to pick favorites…

Luckily, that "someday" happened a while ago, and I still return every year, making it a big portion of my season. I try to spend as much time there as possible because it's a challenging endeavor, unforgiving and careless to your personal goals. Time is the only thing it appreciates, but eventually it'll reward you with the best days of your life. Simply put, Alaska has strengthened my bond with snowboarding and made me appreciate it even more.

WHERE TO STAY

The lodge across the street from here was once a hotspot for the early big mountain pioneers. Now, it's a posh heli lodge where bankers from Cleveland come to ski Alaskan blues for a week and 10 grand. Meanwhile, snowboarding's degenerates poach the facilities before walking further than the clients' heli runs… for free.

Where to stay, for me, happens on a dirtbag's budget—camping out along passes, walking to peaks, poaching fancy heli-op bathrooms to warm the legs while waiting to fly out to glacier camps. This allows for a more personal experience in the area, familiarizing oneself with the terrain and befriending locals. It's also financially improbable for many to stay for an extended time any other way.

The first step in AK logistics is figuring out travel and accommodations. Flying in and renting an RV wouldn't be a bad option, although I've always driven and enjoyed the long road north. I've towed travel trailers and tented before, but last season I purchased a truck camper for semi-luxurious mobility. I believe every zealous adventure bum needs some sort of mobile headquarters for their sabbaticals. While figuring out exactly where to stay is up to you, it's always nice living first world comfortably with down jackets, pants, camp booties, and lots of wool socks and extra gloves. Solar panels and power generators for charging devices such as cameras, speakers, and music players are also very helpful.

ACCESSING TERRAIN

The sheer magnitude of Alaska is something that can be experienced in very few places on this planet.

Accessing terrain comes by many modes. Over 90 percent of my time is spent on a splitboard, although a solid board and pow-surfer are always close by. I've explored the Kenai and Talkeetna Mountains nearer to Anchorage, down southeast in Haines, and even once way out to the Aleutians for wild terrain with marginal conditions. This past season, however, we spent back in the Chugach near Valdez and into the Alaska Range—mostly for easy splitboard access off the road and potential for fixed-wing plane camps further out on the glaciers.

Like most snowboarders, I've never really had the opportunity to fly in helicopters for big-mountain hot laps. Snowmobiles are fun but can also transform reasonable humans into petrol junkies popping wheelies and high-marking up stuff we'd like to snowboard down. A ski plane loaded with camping and riding gear is a relatively economical and peaceful method of transportation to remote zones where you can spend time exploring on foot.

Foot-powered access to the backcountry isn't new; it's just always taken effort. Once you dial in the gear, take appropriate avalanche courses, learn how to camp on snow, travel on glaciers and through big mountains safely—Alaska dreams become obtainable. Camping out for long periods surely isn't as luxurious as a posh heli lodge, and figuring out how to access these mountains safely isn't easy either. Guides and operations are in place to act as safety nets, with years of experience and protocols. Even the TGR/Jones crew hires safety guides and cooks to make the process more forgiving. So much effort goes into learning the ropes and trusting your partners to become your own insurance that it's not just snowboarding but a matter of staying alive, too. The Last Frontier is never sympathetic, constantly demanding effort and attention to score it right. And maybe a little luck, too.

EQUIPMENT

We'd found this zone from a vista far away, and it sparked our interest. Weeks later, a short weather window allowed for a Super Cub plane shuttle and a quick two-day camp mission.

Equipment can be daunting to acquire, and AK usually requires more than a standard backcountry kit. For day trips I take an airbag, Verts snowshoes, ice axe, radio, repair and first aid kit, extra layers, extra gloves, sunnies, water, snacks, and a glacier kit. The glacier kit is the part that can get a bit tricky. No one enjoys carrying a heavy pack, but certain items are necessities. There are many ways to dial in your kit, and it's important to learn others, but stick to a method that works for you. A lightweight harness, four lockers, one oval locker with light plastic pulley, ice screw and tibloc, two wire 'biners, a runner, two short and two long prusiks, and a 30-meter rope usually round out my kit. Everyone needs their own rope, too. Generally, we keep rope teams small—two to three people work best. Freedom Of The Hills or Glacier Mountaineering by Andy Tyson and Mike Clelland are excellent resources.

Indeed, plenty of terrain is accessible without glacier gear, and my first couple seasons we accessed a lot without needing such. But people always want more of a good thing, and the roadside stuff, while incredibly fun, left us desiring less buzz from helicopters and snowmobiles. My ultimate favorite is to camp in good company on glaciers far from any circuses. Gliding over mountains in small fixed-wing planes, setting down on glaciers, intimately learning terrain, and attempting to ride pink pow dream lines sounds romantic. Trust me that it's not entirely. Nights spent in deep negatives, far walks only to be shut down by weather or snowpack, uncrossable bergschrunds, tents lost to winds are all typical. However, when it all lines up right, life couldn't be better or smiles bigger.

EATING & DRINKING

Having something to pass the time on down days—of which there are inevitably many—is crucial in AK. A pack of cards fits nicely into any backcountry pack.

Eating and drinking are obvious necessities, so don't cut yourself short. Bring more whiskey than you'd think for down days and a good book for when the inevitable tent fever kicks in. I like a floorless cook tent and big propane stove to help melt snow with a large pot designated for water. We usually have a water-specific shovel and always grab snow from a certain area to melt. A backup white gas stove is also wise, as they burn well in cold and at elevation. I might be overdoing it, but I even bring a grinder with a hand crank for coffee—could be the Portlander in me.

Eating healthy is crucial for energy and recovery after long days. Whether hitting roadside attractions or out on glaciers, we eat a variety of tasty meals—not just oats and pasta. Instead, it's nice to get down on burritos, pizza, pancakes, stir-fry—really anything imaginable. On glaciers we'll dig refrigerators in the snow, and I'll even crack eggs into a Hydroflask to keep from freezing. Bring lots of veggies and frozen ones, too, for when the fresh run out. Most produce doesn’t keep well unless it's dried or dehydrated.

In regard to the lack of indoor plumbing while snow camping, well, you make do. Build a good wall to hide from the elements and your buddies. I like to build it trough-style and walk down the line each day. But be careful after storms as not to strike any landmines with your shovel. Also, bring hand sanitizer. Wands or tree branches are helpful to see landmarks such as the loo during whiteouts, which could be disastrous otherwise. Out at Denali Base Camp you're even required to poop in special buckets which you pack out. I imagine some poor Park Service intern has the unfortunate job of cleaning those. It's good to have a clean camp with a designated sump hole for kitchen waste and a pee spot downhill from the snow/water collection area. Pesky ravens sometimes fly in and wreak havoc on camps, so storing food properly is important. I've even heard stories of bears walking up glaciers in search of food in the spring. It's Alaska, after all.

GENERAL EXPLORATION

Zak Mills and Zach and Cindi Grant contemplating the potential in a prize couloir above camp. Results were swell.

General exploration takes plenty of time and effort before you really start seeing rewards, but in the end it's just snowboarding. Type-one fun! Past the challenges and adversity, getting to spend time turning a snowboard amongst good company is all we could really ask for. Weather in Alaska is never predictable, so plenty of downtime should be expected each season. Attempting a plane camping program will definitely test your patience. However, if you get a dialed crew and happen to make the journey north, maybe I'll see you. It's a small world despite the grand scale of Alaska.

I'm always wondering what's in store for the following year. Do you go to the popular spots in the Chilkats, Chugach, AK Range, and so forth? It's hard to be on the cutting edge when everybody seemingly wants the same thing—quality snowboarding in profound places. We've had Red Bull helis poach our camp lines and snowmobiles access distant tidewater glaciers. Nowhere is safe from persistent go-getters. I may never be on an Absinthe or Jones type program, but to find fun snowboarding and challenge oneself affordably isn't unrealistic. Just begin with baby steps and explore this great world we live in.

Check out some tips on how to travel to Niseko, Japan on the cheap here.