How to snowboard Alaska.
Riding Alaska has its own certain set of demands. Can you just show up and go for it? Sure. That’s what most people, including a now more experienced Tex Devenport, have done at one time or another. “When I first went up there in ’92,” Tex remembers, “we didn’t check a whole lot of anything. We just landed, got out, and rode. We were fully rollin’ the dice.”
These days, things are a little different. Evaluating the slopes–snow conditions and stability–is almost a science: “Everything’s recorded every day of the season and the whole year.”
But the risks are still there, lurking in the clouds of the next storm or waiting for a mistake by the uninitiated. When the opportunity arises, Alaska can be terribly unforgiving.
The first thing that strikes most riders is the sheer size of the mountains. “Unless you’re from Alaska, or maybe Europe,” says Tex, “then there’s nothing that big.” He notes that the amount of time it takes to acclimate to the monstrous Alaskan slopes varies from rider to rider: “It depends, most people are scared for a few days. But, if you’re like Tom Burt, it probably doesn’t take very long.”
Fear is more or less a constant in the Chugach–it usually corresponds to your capabilities and experience. Fact is, even a technically capable rider can falter under the pressure of an exposed line–the ones Tex says get his heart pumping the most.
But there isn’t necessarily a huge amount of technical snowboarding involved–you don’t have to be a board-riding genius to power your way down some steep pow. The Alaskan ingredients more often called for are whompin’ balls and a touch of lunacy. The better you are technically, though, the better your chances when things go haywire.
While you shouldn’t let fear stop you, you also shouldn’t entirely ignore it. Fear is often your best protection, as sometimes feeling too comfortable can create a false sense of security. If you’re not scared at all (and there are people who aren’t), you’re probably the most dangerous person out there.
The best way to get started in Alaska is to pay attention to those who know more than you–guides and friends–and to avoid riding with people who may put you and the rest of the group at risk. Take extra time to scope lines and identify hazards from the heli, Polaroids work well for this. In addition, use landmarks like rock outcroppings and shadow lines to guide you; you don’t want to be lost on the way down.
Aside from the theory of how to approach riding in Alaska, there are some nuts and bolts tactics to getting down the big and burly.
Tex’s advice is to start with the easiest runs out there and work your way up a little at a time. That means you’ll encounter glaciers and glacial features like crevasses early on in your Alaskan sojourn. Glaciers typically make up the less steep, more gentle runs and the valleys between peaks, but they also present their own set of hazards.
Crevasses, big cracks or fissures in a glacier, are at the top of every rider’s “steer clear of” list. Not only can they be almost infinitely and unpredictably deep, but crevasses are often covered by snowbridges, hidden from view until late spring or summer. As a rule of thumb, crevasses usually run across the hill, perpendicular to the slope’s fall-line.
If riding among crevasses is unavoidable, better your chances by pointing it. The faster and straighter you ride, the more likely you are to glide over the top of a hole without breaking the surface snow and dipping in. Traversing and turning across the slope increase your exposure to a crevasse’s oppening and to taking an unwanted plunge.
Bergschrunds are close relatives of crevasses. They occur where the base of a headwall, or face, meets the side of a glacier–usually near the bottom of a run. Take a good look at the bergschrund before your run to determine if it’s jumpable, and then use landmarks like rocks and shadows to line it up. Some runs are so steep that it’s hard to see beyond the slightest undulation in the slope, but you’ll usually be able to see a bergschrund coming.
The most recognizable feature of Alaskan riding is slough (pronounced “sluff”). Slough, generated by riding, is the accumulation of loose snow that moves down the slope like a waterfall. It builds with a snowball-like effect, gaining size and speed with each successive turn, and it can get big enough to knock you down.
“In Alaska, you get into the habit of looking over your shoulder every turn,” says Tex. If caught by a slough unaware, it can mean big problems. Tex and other veteran AK riders use what they call “slough management” to avoid any unwanted encounters, determining the course the slough will take–”It will usually be in one line, coming down like a river”–and riding away from it or outrunning it. Tex adds, “You can definitely go faster than the slough until it becomes a full-blown avalanche.”
The modus operandi for the average Joes of the riding world is to avoid slough altogether. That means making a few turns down the fall-line and then scooting over–hard right or left–across the hill, letting the slough pass by. It also means riding fast; leave the dainty turns in the Lower 48.