It’s probably safe to say that Alaska is on every backcountry skier’s checklist. Ever since I was a kid, it’s been on mine. Randomly on a late April afternoon I ran into friend and photographer Ryan Creary. Funny how things sometimes work out but after a quick discussion, Andrew McNab and myself found ourselves booking tickets to the wild Alaskan mountains. We had only 2 weeks to plan this awesome 7 days backcountry mission with 4 other skiers/snowboarders. The group would be Andrew Clark, Alex McKay, Ryan Creary, Ryan Stuart and ourselves. While doing the trip research, the Sawtooth Range close to the BC/Alaska border drew our attention. Though the range was close to the main zone we'd be skiing with the group, we were not sure if conditions, timing and logistic would line up to add it to the list of things to do.
May 1st, wearing shorts, we sat at the Kelowna airport armed with our large ski bags and even larger 80 liters bags - we were ready for the adventure. A beautiful sunset flight to Whitehorse and a day of organizing later, we were off to Skagway, Alaska. Along the drive, we could feel the excitement increasing in the truck with every sharp road turn. Soon we found ourselves surrounded by beautiful mountains, and we could finally see the impressive, sharp and unique skyline of the Sawtooth range. From the road, it looked so close but little did we know the approach was going to require some work!
Once in Skagway, we enjoyed our last big meal before fully jumping into the amazing adventure ahead. We spent the next 6 days exploring the wild Alaskan mountains, skiing great lines, reaching 2 summits a day, watching the northern lights in the evening, skiing till 9pm just because we could and enjoying the winter camping life. Moving camp along the way, on the 4th day of the trip, we found ourselves camped on a moraine with the most amazing yet dramatic backdrop I have ever seen. Waking up to this spectacular scenery was truly memorable. What was even more amazing was managing the broken terrain to find the safest way to gain the higher plateau of the Laughton Glacier. From there, we were able to get a great view of the Sawtooth range that was still in the back of our mind as a possible trip bonus. It became clear with visual information that if we could manage a way in, the Sawtooth Couloirs would be welcoming some ski tracks.
We crossed multiple drainages and saw a lot of recent avalanche activity. With safety in mind, we tried to make the right decisions as far as route finding went. Finally after half a day of navigating the rolling terrain under blistering sun, we came to the basin where the Sawtooth Couloirs were quietly sitting. Lunch, discussions & plan… the group decided on different options. Andrew and myself choose to head to the main prominent 500m couloir.
As we started to climb up the protected north-facing feature, we quickly put our skis on our back and with ice axe in hand, it was going to be steep, variable & a long way up! We worked hard consistently moving and trying to avoid icy chunks bouncing down the trough.
Finally at the apex of the line, full of excitement and stomach butterflies we changed gear from uphill to down! The turns were certainly not soft and the nature of the terrain brought up the true definition of steep skiing. Each turn carefully executed made us live right in this precious moment. Nothing else mattered but what we were doing right then. For that, my heart pumping and my legs ready to explode, I skied away from the line towards the rest of the group with emotion and satisfaction.
We proceeded to climb back up for a second lap on another feature with amazing evening light before we began our journey back to camp. The way out was faster than anticipated and the morning canyon was in perfect condition for an evening shred. We had great turns all the way to our campsite. Carrying our Sawtooth exitement all the way to valley bottom, we enjoyed the trip’s last sunset with that much more gratitude.
Driving back to Whitehorse at the end of the trip, I looked back at the spectacular range but with a different set of eyes then on the way in. We had come, enjoyed, created moments and connection with this very special place and were leaving with the desire to come back.
A Sawtooth Adventure
Video courtesy of Andrew McNab