The power of powsurfing saves a big mission in Alaska from going sideways
I practically smeared my face against the oval window as we neared the Chigmit Range on the North of the Cook Inlet in Alaska. Our little bush plane, crammed with a team of Alaskans and Jacksonites, soared over the open water and then into the vast wilderness this past spring. White plumes exploded from the plane’s skis bouncing on the snow as we landed.
Our crew of five jumped out of the aircraft. We were instantly buried up to our thighs, hooting and hollering. We had a big weather window and just a few goals: ride the Iliamna Volcano, avoid crevasses…and powsurf.
Standing 6,000 feet above our base camp, Iliamna was no small feat to ascend. We started up the mountain in the unrelenting wind and unknowingly found ourselves bootpacking on a peculiar rib-like wind slab. The slab popped right underneath Frenchie, one of our crew members. Before anyone had time to react, he yelled “Avalanche!” and pulled his avy airbag. Luckily, he only went for a short ride down the slope as the balloon behind his head filled up.
We were high on the mountain and in a state of shock. After regrouping we agreed to change our ascent route. We hoped we had found the only wind slab on the mountain. Our new route involved a short ice climbing pitch, which split the group. Half did not feel comfortable climbing and the others continued to the summit. It was a strange day, but we talked over our decision-making and group communication when we got back to camp. Then we celebrated returning home safely with some powsurf turns at our little private resort.
“Powsurfing reminds me of the feeling I would get while sledding as a kid.”
Most of the crew had never ridden a powsurf board before. For those who haven’t tried it yet: You ride a short, wide board with no bindings and use the resistance of the snow to surf downhill. Our base camp was at the bottom of a mellow north-facing slope holding untouched snow—the perfect terrain for powsurfing.
I felt obligated to get a lap in before bed each night, no matter how big the day had been. Pow-surfing reminds me of the feeling you’d get while sledding as a kid, that giddy combination of absolute freedom and minimal control. It energized me to run back up for another lap, even when my legs were jello after a 6,000-foot vertical day.
Our route up Mount Iliamna had now been established and the weather was still clear, so we decided to go for the summit again, as a team. We settled in and took a relaxing rest day filled with pow-surfing first. We left for our second summit attempt the next morning. Frenchie stayed back at camp; he had been nursing an ankle injury all winter and he didn’t feel up to it. He didn’t want to jeopardize our chances of success.
Four of us set off for the summit of the stratovolcano high above our heads. We reached the ice pitch, set the rope, made an anchor, and safely ascended the ridge all the way to the summit. At the top we hugged and danced; we were so happy to make it all the way up together as a team. Once the celebration subsided we rode 5,000 feet of soft turns on the way back down. We stayed far away from the wind slab area and kept to low-angle terrain. The riding and the setting were surreal.
Everyone gave Frenchie a big hug when we cruised into camp. He was thrilled for us, but we had missed having him there at the top. To me, he was the true hero of the whole trip. It takes a lot to listen to your body and turn back, and I commend him for making that call. Naturally, we celebrated our successful mission with some evening pow-surf laps, reveling in the joy of it all.
It’s funny: We set out to conquer a huge volcano, but when I look back I remember those moments on the powsurfer the most—laughing, falling, and trying something new. Carrying the pow board up the bootpack felt like the perfect way to end each day. I would often take a break at the top of the hike and look out at the sun setting behind the infinite Alaskan peaks on the horizon before dropping in.
Joey Sackett learned to surf in Wyoming. He might have longer hair than Olaus. @jsack_foto