Words and Photos: Josh Mandel
Mountains are where I find inspiration. It is the mountains that teach me lessons that I can relate back to almost anything else in life. I grew up in Lander, WY, and first went snowboarding at Teton village when I was 13. Ever since I’ve been hooked.
Iris Lazzareschi grew up in North Lake Tahoe, CA, and moved to Jackson in search of better snow and bigger mountains. I first met Iris a few years ago on a ridge while filming for the World Freeride Championships in Thompson Pass, AK. We had both been living in the Tetons and traveling north each spring in search of the terrain that dreams are made of.
During my first trip to Alaska four years ago, I vividly remember hitchhiking into Valdez and being awestruck by the surrounding terrain, but one particular line that I could see from the road stood out among the rest. Mt. Francis is the most prominent peak you see looking east from town, its rocky face rises up from sea level to a 5,023-foot summit that towers over the port. The couloir – a shaded notch cutting straight down the middle with a steep narrow crux and a large cornice at the top – caught my eye. I asked everyone about the line but had no success finding any info about it. Several books talked about ski touring to Francis, but they only touched on skiing the main face or near it. Then there is Dean Cummings, who claims to have skied it from the summit via helicopter by sending the top cliff and tomahawking. I, however, was interested in the chute, which I knew was a “garbage chute” just by looking at it, as rock fall and avalanches are regular activity in steep terrain like this. Unable to stop thinking about the line, I headed out in March with my friend Nate Olsen, only to change course after a large slough came down from above. Feeling rather fortunate the slough wasn’t bigger, we turned around in the spirit of Theo Meiner’s old phrase to “Live to ski another day.” But after having the couloir on my mind for so long, I was keen to return.
Almost a month later and after another storm cycle had settled, Iris, Nate and I gave it another try on April 23. It was a perfect bluebird day as we retraced our way back up the alder benches and across the glacier, switched to our Verts snowshoes and climbed the steep line before it got too warm. As we climbed above the crux, I could see spines open up to our right and the cornice above, picking a safe spot under a rock to put our boards on, Iris and I pushed to the top. I took a moment to take in my surroundings as we strapped in, looking out over the port with town in the distance. I looked at Iris perched on a snow pillar. “We might be the first ones to strap in here,” I said. She laughed and replied, “No! You think? Well, maybe for a girl, anyway.” I set up for a shot that I had envisioned for years and watched her make a beautiful frontside turn on the spine, disappearing into the void below. I followed after and we regrouped halfway down where we decided to boot up the main face for extra turns.
The next day we sat at the Wheelhouse bar in Valdez, gazing at our mountain through the window behind the taps at the bar. We named it the 307 Couloir, after Wyoming’s statewide area code, leaving our little mark of the Cowboy State in AK. It was my last run of the year and one I’ll never forget. It was a reminder that the people you surround yourself with and the sometimes unknown places you choose to go determine the experience.