If you didn’t know any better, the pullout at Seward Highway Mile 48 would look like any other makeshift rest area on Alaska’s most dangerous highway. In fact, if not for the half-dozen bumper-stickered Outbacks and Tacomas with toppers, a couple of dirtbags like us might have driven right past it.
What the empty ski racks indicate, but no sign explicitly says, is that the Mile 48 pullout is the unofficial trailhead for Manitoba Mountain. The trail, forged on this bluebird day by the eager, powder-starved backcountry skiers of Southcentral Alaska, winds its way through two thousand vertical feet of snowy hemlock forest. The gently rising trail, surrounded by scenery reminiscent of the Cascades, soon gives way to alders and willow, and, finally, opens up for a view of the friendly-looking peak, a destination for post-storm days when steeper slopes are prone to slide.
We’d picked Manitoba because the weather in Anchorage that morning had been grim. Gray skies spit just enough snow to compromise roads, but not enough to stick to the slopes. As we filled our packs with the requisites of a backcountry ski tour—rescue gear, peanut M&Ms, a flask of après ski Evan Williams—I wondered, silently, if anything in Turnagain Pass would be skiable, or if we’d drive the ninety minutes only to find whiteout conditions.
A grimace from Bix as he peered out our second-story window at traffic on Minnesota Drive told me he was thinking the same thing, but we’re good at playing ski-chicken: ten minutes later, we were locking our skis onto the roof rack and bidding Anchorage farewell.
We needn’t have worried. As the landlocked Seward Highway broke into the inlet, bordered now by soaring Chugach peaks and the icy expanse of the frozen mud flats, the sky cleared. Bix swore he could hear angels singing as we passed the crowded Tincan parking lot and sped toward Manitoba Mountain, framed on all sides by bluebird sky and freshly snowed-upon peaks.
Like many things about Alaska, the popular ski destinations of the Chugach present as much danger as beauty. While much of the Lower 48 experienced their coldest and snowiest winters on record, Southcentral Alaska has been in the midst of what most snow professionals I know are referring to as “June-uary,” in which rain replaced snow and we skied mostly ice and wind crusts. Desperate for skiable conditions, backcountry skiers couldn’t wait to ski on a beautiful day following a recent (and much-needed) storm.
For people like us, the siren call of a gloriously sunny post-storm powder day is tough to resist. On days like this, I have to channel my inner snow geek and remember phrases like “storm slab” and “persistent weak layer,” which remind me that lots of new snow, as a rule of thumb, makes a snowpack unstable, especially if there’s already a weak layer underneath it. Despite this tried-and-true wisdom—and an abundance of opportunities for avalanche education in Alaska—people die in slides every year on beautiful days like this one: winter has been rekindled after a long dry spell, and snow lovers can’t wait to get out in it.
We know there’s a risk. Risk is an inherent characteristic off all the fun things; all the things worth doing. People will continue to ski avalanche terrain, and, on occasion, they’ll die in it. All we can do is learn as much as we can, decide how much risk we can tolerate, and hope we’re not the ones making headlines.
Sometimes, though, no matter how careful we are, headlines are made anyway. It’s the price of living disaster-style.
The day we skied Manitoba, we woke up to the news that one of our generation’s great alpinists had died while climbing in Patagonia. Chad Kellogg has put up admirable first (and fastest) ascents in alpine style–light, fast, solo or with a select group of similarly-minded partners–in North and South America, Nepal and Kyrgystan. His trip reports appeared in the American Alpine Journal year after year, and he never failed to challenge himself further with each subsequent climb.
I only ever exchanged a few emails with Kellogg during my yearlong internship at the American Alpine Club, but once I became familiar with his name, it seemed like I heard it everywhere: in the famous “Dirtbag Diaries” episode about his 2008 epic with Dylan Johnson, in the AAJ, on climber forums. When I climb big peaks, I thought, I’ll do it like that.
It was a beautiful day in the mountains, but I’d be lying if I said Kellogg’s death wasn’t on my mind. He was certainly a more experienced and talented climber than I was; how could this have happened?
Why do we do the things we do?
It didn’t take long for me to answer my own question. As we skied back to the trailhead, the bluebird day began to fade, and a swarm of chickadees flew overhead, harmonizing their warning of an incoming squall. A ground squirrel ducked out of the trail and into its den. As Bix trucked along ahead of me, pausing every now and again to take in the view, I remembered why we do it: we need the mountains. It’s our responsibility to take care of them and of each other, and while Kellogg’s death is tragic, I’d argue that it would be sadder still to live a life without mountains and the risk they represent.