At the extreme northwest of the North American continent is a mysterious and foreboding land. Nearly rectangular, defended by endless spiked peaks, home to devilish, ghastly beasts and beings ready to tear into those who seek its treasures. But those treasures are shrouded in curling mists and smoke from dark and noisome pools. The reek of them hangs in still, stifling air. The mountains of this land stand precipitously like a black bar of rugged clouds, and above it all is the fiery red eye of Sauron. Is this a description of Mordor or Alaska? There’s no way to be certain. But there is one irrefutable fact: Alaska is a Tolkein-esque dreamscape of beauty and nausea-inducing terror.
Which is why I’ve never been to Alaska. As a die-hard skier, I “think” it’s on my bucket list but it also kinda scares me, because it’s very scary. Professional skiers go up there and get spanked, except Doug Coombs. But Coombs was born in Alaska and is the demi-god son of Ullr, so he doesn’t count. The white people who moved to AK left the contiguous U.S. for possibly very scary reasons, like murdery reasons. Alaska has giant bears, whales, reindeer, moose, wolves, pterodactyls, and a bunch of other stuff that can eat you or trample you or eat you after you’ve been trampled. It’s even rumored that Alaskan salmon are really just spiked biceps with gills and a tail and the ability to spit fire.
I’m pretty sure the entire state of Alaska doesn’t have a single grocery store. You have to hunt and forage for grub. Chances are I’d be eating my navel lint, since my food stalking skills are limited to “Hey, what’s in the fridge?”
The first people to inhabit what is now known as Alaska most likely arrived about 13,000 years ago after walking from Russia on the Bering Land Bridge. Again, they walked, they walked from Russia. RUSSIA! And the indigenous people who still live there, like the Inuit, Tlingit, Haida, Aleuts, Athabascans, and Yup’ik, are among the hardiest people to ever be hardy people in the history of hardihood. I like to think of myself as a tough Coloradan up for a challenge in the mountains, but I should divulge that as I write this I am wearing slippers. It’s 46-degrees outside. And my slippers are slip-on, since bending over to put heeled slippers on is too damn difficult. Ugh, I am possibly a giant wuss.
I fear Alaska may be too much for me to handle. Of the 20 tallest peaks in the United States, 17 are in Alaska. The state is 1/5 the size of the contiguous US, and inside all that land is 3,000 rivers and 3-million lakes and 100,000 glaciers, and more than 100 volcanoes, but less than one million people. The capital city of Juneau is only accessible by boat or plane or unicorn. There is approximately 1 bear for every 21 people, and it’s alleged those bears know karate. Sometimes the sun disappears for months. And other times the sun won’t set for months, because apparently time and science don’t apply up there. The sled dog is Alaska’s state bird.
All this is to say, I think the skiers who shred those lines that are a mixture of a dream and a nightmare—the powdery, vertical AK spines we’ve all drooled over when watching ski flicks—seem almost superhuman to me. I love skiing and I feel confident in my skiing ability. But I feel like I am more likely to tap my therapist to help me through AK-induced panic attacks than tap into some kind of Alaska badassery.
>More from the author: Dear guy who cut the lift line on our first powder day in months…
I was recently upchucking my nervous overthinking to two friends who have checked the AK box on their skiing to-do list. The first said he was terrified for the entirety of his ski trip. This did not help me. But the other told me to step it up and go. She said Alaska is the least scared she’d ever been on skis thanks to her guides. It was is she felt the most unadulterated ski joy, in fact.
She barked at me to be a big boy, gave me a confidence-building, “you can do it!” She then completely pulled the rug out from that by telling me the only time she was scared was when she asked to be; told the heli guide to scare her, so they dropped her off on a little pinnacle and flew away. There she clung like a cat to drapes alone with a radio and the instructions to not move a millimeter until told to do so. “What did the line look like,” I asked in wide-eyed concern. She didn’t know. She couldn’t see anything below her.
That to me, the fact that at any moment I could be the loneliest, most terrified skier in the world, is the truly scary bit of it all; a little, insignificant speck in the enormity of enormous mountains trying to remember how to click into skis on a line so steep it’s as if the Earth has disappeared and I am floating in ski outer space, only my petrified thoughts to keep me company. But imagine pushing into and through that fear, dropping into a line so magical, so surreal and wonderful, that you nearly reach ski Nirvana? It’s equal parts alluring and poop-in-the-pants-inducing. Do I want to go to Alaska alone? No. Do I want to go there with other people who’ll make me feel like I have to go do something terrifying? Also no. Do I want to still go? Yes. Does this make sense? Absolutely not. But then, skiing doesn’t always make sense.
Dear Alaska, see you next spring?