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Into the Final Frontier : An Alaska Adventure with Ryland Bell

Some trips don't go as planned, but can you still get the goods?

Regardless of how much time, effort and energy you put into planning, the fickle ways of the weather can change everything. Last season, Alaskan native, Ryland Bell, planned a trip in the coastal mountains outside of Haines, Alaska with Jeremy Jones and a small crew of filmers. Their plan was straightforward; fly out to a remote zone, set up camp, and take siege on a series spines that beckoned  to be ridden. After weeks of waiting on weather to coperate, the clouds finally parted and they set out on their mission. What transpired was unlike anything they planned for. Read on for a tale of their journey, as told through the eyes of Ryland Bell.

Photos: Jeff Curley

Words: Ryland Bell

There is truly no terrain like this on the planet. It was pretty cool for me to plan and execute every stage of this trip, then be able to invite Jeremy Jones along to share in the adventure. We originally saw this zone from the Spine Institute, while filming for Deeper. It's been one hell of a trip and an amazing evolution to come back and finally nail lines of this caliber. Most lines in films are often between 200-400 vertical feet, while these lines were 1800 vertical, which is why they were so special.

Enter Alaska

"Ed, have you seen my sleeping bag?"

"No, why?"

We found ourselves deep in a backcountry abyss. The last 40 minutes we had spent probing a spot for a safe camp zone, that wasn't suspended over a hidden chasm. Our pilot had flown off through broken clouds and high glacial peaks. We hoped he'd return soon with our next member of the crew and more supplies.

Now the broken clouds had become more solid, and I found myself without a sleeping bag.

'Sorry,'' I murmured to Ed [Stanley] our head of snow safety and medical.

This wasn’t good. I felt so stupid, and beyond that, it just wasn’t safe. We didn't know how long it would be before a resupply could take place. We were over 100 miles out in the middle of nowhere, high on a deserted glacier and things became tense.

The last 15 days I spent hunkered down in my cabin in Haines, AK waiting for the storms to break, even for a few hours, so we could try and establish a camp.

It had been a last minute rush at the hangar and my sleeping bag and most of our safety gear had been left behind. We had negotiated with our pilot to at least bring two of us, Ed and myself, so that we could start to build camp and keep track of the weather. In the land of intense storms and quickly shifting weather patterns, there were no accurate forecasts.

That day, the clouds became dark, and snow began to fall. The two of us hunkered down in my tent. Strong gusts of wind started to batter the four-season outer fabric.

"We'll be fine so long as your tent holds up," said Ed.

The silence after Ed's statement was dark and cold. My tent has been amazing, it weathered me through 100+ mph winds in the Alaska Range, but it was six years old. If one thread unraveled, it could be the end of our above ground-living. The realization was of where we were, and the possibility it could be just the two of us for weeks on end, stuck in this place.

Ed cracked the top on a half-gallon of Black Velvet whiskey. He used a Leatherman to pop off the plastic pour spout, and handed me the bottle. The whiskey went down easy and my paranoia started to ease.

It snowed over four feet that night..

Days two through four were spent shoveling, shoveling, drinking, and shoveling. By the time Chris Edmands and Forrest Shearrer hit camp, it had snowed nearly 12 feet and we were down about a gallon of whiskey.

Those were long, wet nights. I had a silk sleeping bag liner and would stuff it full of Ed and my extra puffy jackets and mid-layers. It didn’t do much. I had a lot of time to think…

Why were we here? Deep in these vast, isolated mountains… Searching for the perfect line. The idea of chasing one all-time line.

The storms finally broke after eight long days hiding from the elements. Finally the final members of our crew were able to fly in and we were all frothing…

During the storms, it never rained, but near the end, the weather was definitely not sticking to the tents. So the moisture and a cold night left what we considered a 'world class crust.'  We started down the glacier and checked the first three spots we had scoped for warm-up lines. They were all F@#!ED.  We were dismayed by all the time, effort, and months of planning that had all gone down the drain.

We opted to go higher and found it was still crusted.

We ventured back to camp, feeling disheartened. We came here for that one epic line, and I know we wanted to warm up, but then we decided we should just go for it and have another look. There were two hanging glaciers, that each clung to a side of the spine wall.  This zone was dubbed 'the shooting gallery,' and was very hard to access. It was an hour out of camp, with over 1000 vertical gained, and it was still crusty.

We kept climbing and finally, we reached the Bergshcund. Powder, there was perfect boot-deep stable AK pow. Holy shit! Our stoke rose. We knew we'd actually ride. We opted for an afternoon mission. A portion of spines would get a small amount of light, and we wanted to climb in the light when it was safer.  The climb was long, steep and portions topped out near 70 degrees vertical.

Canyon and I made the first trip. Once we finally topped out, we took in the view and felt alive. We counted to three, then I dropped. It had been two years since I'd been on real spines and I  hoped I remembered how to do it. It was a success, the first line went well.

We arrived back at camp and everyone was buzzing, because we knew we were going to make it happen. Then, more weather rolled in, clouds came and then finally dispersed, so we climbed again. This time it was with the whole crew for the afternoon session. No certainty on whether, so we had to do it when we could.

As we topped out, the clouds were already on us. It's was a surprise, as we had seen only blue skies during our climb. Forrest was the first to ride a line, and he hit a short, but perfect window of blue. He sent up double overhead sprays, then glided out of view.

Jeremy and I waited at the top, eager and strapped in. We kept imagining that at any minute the thickening clouds would part, and give us a perfect window of light and visibility, but they never did.

'Well, we can't sleep up here.'

Chris dropped and disappeared into fog and flat light after two turns. I went next and knew the decent would be terrifying. I couldn't see the bootpack, and it was the most intense flat light I have ever encountered. It had me slipping down on my toe-side edge, and punching my hands into the snow to slow the descent. I never thought I would have to ride a 60 degree spine wall in conditions like this.

I made it down, and camp never felt so good. Our time in this glacial world was winding down and we still were no were near riding the prized line. I had been living in my tent for 17 days. The finally one night, around 1:45 a.m., I struggled free of my sleeping garments and in the subzero temperature, and unzipped the tent door. I looked out, and there were stars. Beautiful, brilliant stars, this only meant one thing, it was go time.

We set out and found that our old bootpack was still there, which helped speed up our climb. At 5:30 a.m., we topped out. The air is was frigid, and the sky is clear. The sun began to rise, and broke in the distant horizon. This meant it was time to get into position and be ready. We wanted that perfect pink light.When it finally hit, we rode.

There's nothing that I can say that can describe the moments on slope, but I will never forget them. Each turn and spray, are etched perfectly into my memory. This is what we wanted, this is why were there, and we finally achieved it.

Check out more stories from Alaska here!