Skiing in Alaska on the Prince William Sound

Skiing in Alaska on the Prince William Sound

The ship is underway, cutting through the ink-blue waters of Prince William Sound with a course charted to Culross Passage. Onboard the 58-foot boat, our group of five adventurous skiers have signed on to one of the first commercially guided skiing in Alaska ski boat tours of Prince William Sound (PWS). With close to 15,000 square miles of roadless wilderness, and thousands of peaks in the Chugach and Kenai mountains that can only be accessed by boat, the potential for exploratory ski touring and ski mountaineering is limitless.

The scene on the boat is one of controlled chaos. Amidst ski gear and duffel bags, crewmembers store equipment and provisions for the week-long trip, while our seasoned captain, 53-year-old Alex von Wichman, unfurls her tattered, sun-stained nautical charts. Searching the peaks and contour lines with her steely hazel-blue eyes, she points out possible ski objectives and it becomes clear we are about to experience one of the most unique and pure forms of skiing in Alaska, possibly anywhere in the world.

Kayaking in the PWS Alaska
Kayaking in the PWS Alaska

It’s what Captain Alex calls “Alaska adventure skiing.” A term oft-used by our chiseled ski guide Nick D’Alessio, which – when loosely translated – means utilizing wilderness and ski guiding skills to navigate Alaska’s vast dangers, while at the same time opening up exploratory ski lines to clients by private charter boat. As D’Alessio explains it, “Skiing in PWS is a total adventure – remote setting, minimal information going in and unknown snow conditions until you get out to the field, with a lifetime of terrain options.”

A pioneer of boat-assisted ski touring in the area, Captain Alex has been commercially fishing and chartering in these waters with her brother and business partner Brad von Wichman for over thirty years. Struggling at times to make a living, the two nearly lost everything in the wake of the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill, which dumped over eleven million gallons of oil into pristine wilderness, contaminating more than 1,300 miles of coastline, and killing an estimated 250,000 seabirds, 3,000 otters, 250 bald eagles, and 22 orcas.

“When I saw the oil first-hand,” Captain Alex tells me, “it was a mix of emotions. It wasn’t just the oil; it was the absence of life – no birds flying overhead, the ocean was devoid of otters and sea life. As I got closer to the smell, the oil was omnipresent. Like a slap in the face, and an assault on the senses.”

The impact of the spill – at the time the largest in US history – played a major role in the collapse of the area’s fishing industry and set the von Wichman’s on a new course helping with the environmental clean-up and, afterward, chartering boats for scientific research, as well as sea and mountain-based tourism in the PWS.

“When the bottom fell out of the US fish market,” Captain Alex says, “this is what propelled our thinking to try and figure out what to do next – either go for the fishing or start chartering since we knew the Sound so well.

Onboard the Babkin, our group is quite happy to be commercial guinea pigs, and have the ability to customize our itinerary, and select peaks and untouched wilderness routes from the safe confines of a charter boat.

Skiing in Alaska
Skiing in Alaska

“There is something special about skiing down to the ocean, and then getting on the skiff to go home for the evening,” says Captain Alex. “Your meals are taken care of, you aren’t sleeping in a tent on shore, and you don’t have to worry about bears finding you or your food. It’s just you and the wilds of Alaska offering a ski and wilderness experience that is pure and life-changing.”

With the dome-like features of Culross Peak in the distance, the boat’s twin-turbo powered Volvo engines rumble toward our first ski objective. We swap our fishing gear for ski boots, and make our way over the lime green seaweed and cobblestone beach before heading off toward the snow line where a dense, temperate rain forest awaits. Wading through thick Alder bush and mountain Hemlock, we begin the ski tour with a true Alaskan bushwhack, passing fresh Wolverine and Black Bear tracks that prompt the crew to call out “Where ya Wolverine, Heyyaaa Bear” to alert fellow critters and acknowledge that we are not alone.

Weaving past lakes and multiple creek crossings, we finally access the upper flanks of Culross Peak and wind upward 2,500 feet to its rocky, snow-covered summit where our foot-powered ski touring is rewarded with views of fjords and glaciers, and some of the biggest mountains in the Chugach. On the horizon, Mt. Marcus Baker – the highest peak in the Chugach – pierces the clouds at just over 13,000 feet, offering bountiful ski mountaineering lines, while the Serpentine glacier, which cuts through Mt Gilbert, meanders its way to the ocean. The team transitions from ski touring to descent mode, smoothly slicing through granular corn snow as we admire the beauty of our mountainous setting and one another’s silhouettes against the blue shades of the Pacific Ocean.

Later that evening, after “glacieritas” and a delicious dinner of salmon pesto, we gather around a beach bonfire under the starlight – all smiles – as we reflect on our day of unparalleled wild scenery and fantastic skiing.

Bonfires on the Beach
Bonfires on the Beach

The next day, we head out to Blackstone Bay for a combination of sea kayaking and ski adventures. From the ridge adjacent to the Beloit tidal glacier, our ski-touring group stands in reverence of a jumbled white and blue ice mass-created over 11,000 years before during the Pleistocene. As we prepare to descend, we hear a primordial cracking sound – a rumbling from deep within the glacier that feels as if it is talking to us. We watch as a fifty-foot high tower calves tons of ice into the ocean, creating an explosion of water and debris that alarms a flock of Kittiwake seagulls into a frenzy of calls and highlights our insignificance in this vast wilderness.

Back on the boat, I reflect upon a quote by Edward Abbey: “Wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit.” Having come for the experience to ski Prince William Sound, our group encountered a wilderness that changed us. Watching the glacier calve into the ocean had brought tears to my eyes, and an intense sense of reality about the current state of our planet – in particular the challenges of climate change, ocean pollution and environmental catastrophes. The PWS wilderness had been transformative, infusing each of us with a greater appreciation for the value of the Alaskan wilds, and the notion they are more important than our constant need to consume. Like Abbey, we left with a cause, as well as an understanding that we must hold these wild places in our hearts, and a commitment to preserve them so that others may also experience their beauty and life-changing power.

Babkin Charters offer bespoke ski boat tours in Prince William Sound annually, from 1 March – 30 April. Groups of up to 5 people can be accommodated on the Babkin, with prices starting at $2,700 per day for charter costs, and $1,000 per day for a ski guide. For more information, contact:

Captain Alex von Wichman

Babkin Charters

+1 (907) 272-8989

alex@babkin.com

Nick D’Alessio

Remarkable Adventures

+1 (907) 441-0432

info@RemarkableAdv.com

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