Follow Your Compass

Some rise, some fall, some climb, to get to terrapin. Exploring the mighty Chugach on foot offers much more than massive vert.
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Some rise, some fall, some climb, to get to terrapin. Exploring the mighty Chugach on foot offers much more than massive vert.

“Kaylin, where does the compass always point?”

As I followed the skin track, my steps in time with my breath, I racked my brain for the answer to lead guide Brennan Lagasse’s question. I mentally checked all the information I had learned and practiced before this trip, certain there must be some trick of the alpinist trade I was being tested on. This being my first foray into the vast mountains of Alaska, I didn’t want to betray what I’d hoped to conceal from the moment I walked off the plane in Cordova: I was in complete and utter awe.

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“North?” I said with an uncertainty I instantly regretted. Brennan just laughed and said cryptically, “We’re going to have a great two weeks.”

And we did. A month before this conversation took place, when I told people I was going all the way to AK on a film shoot to go touring, most of them looked at me with a wry expression that said, “I hope you are joking.” Why would we travel to the big-mountain equivalent of the land of milk and honey and then not rely on a helicopter to get the most vertical possible? Fair question. And I would be lying if I said I didn't ask myself the same thing. However, the magnitude of the Chugach range is not something that can be imagined. It has to be experienced. Ski movies, magazine spreads, and even helicopters cannot intimately acquaint you with these mountains the way living in a tent amidst their peaks and exploring them on skis and skins can.

My travel companions and I also became intimately acquainted with one another. You rely on your ski partners in these unpredictable mountains not only to help you make decisions, but also to entertain you once the skiing ends for the day. Being completely off the grid sounds like cruel and unusual punishment to many, but there are few things I can recommend more. Not only is the skiing more gratifying, but the food you eat tastes better, the company you keep is more interesting, and the sleep you get is sweeter.

Skiing powder down a 46-degree pitch is memorable for sure, but so were the hours we spent sitting in a circle in the communal tent. One night cinematographer Tom Day shared stories of Squallywood days past, Brennan challenged us to imagine a utopian society, Marcus Caston explained his love for the hop turn, and Niel Kasper had us spitting out food with his spot-on Maine accent. The conversation oscillated between bawdy and existential, which is exactly how I like it.

One day we woke to milky skies and agreed the day wasn’t fit for filming—perfect for a soul session sans cameras. A few hours in, we reached the top of Rest Day Couloir and the clouds parted for a vista beyond reckoning. Tom, the consummate and dogged professional, laughed with a hint of chagrin, but I told him with the utmost sincerity that I believed that had his gear been in tow, there is no way it would have opened up so gloriously. Proof that the ski gods love to laugh in the face of plans made by mere mortals, it was the best run of the trip—the powder was light, the company was grand, and the fun was all-time. The next day we’d get back to work, touring, shredding, and filming on the sides of those mountains.

The razor-sharp focus before you ski a line juxtaposed with the unfettered joy that follows is staggering. Humbling is probably a better word. The immensity of that land made me all the more aware of my own insignificance. Feeling small has never been and, I believe, will never be more fun.

Countless gems occurred over those two weeks that I will always treasure. Whether it was taking in the otherworldly northern lights, reveling in the unparalleled deep powder, or watching the silhouettes of eight knuckleheads nodding along to “Shakedown Street,” they all made me understand the meaning of Brennan’s question that first day.

My Grateful Dead IQ increased exponentially during my time at tour camp, though the concept of “Terrapin” from Garcia and Hunter’s opus remains up for interpretation. My take is this: We all have a place that we are drawn to. It can be addiction, it can be love, but it is powerful and it pulls at the heart.

For me, the arrow points to the peaks. This energy, this magic, it cannot be explained. And frankly, I wouldn’t want it to be.

> Fly into Cordova and book the Heli Access Touring Package with Points North Heli (alaskaheliski.com). It’s one of the most luxurious of its kind, with Arctic tents, cots, propane heaters, and hot meals. 

By Kaylin Richardson

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