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The Untold Wonders of Three Weeks in the Alaskan Backcountry

McKenna Peterson provides insight on the motives behind days and nights of waiting, the hidden marvels in the Fairweather Range, and the big lines on the Peak of Ill Repute.

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SCOTT’S film “Peak of Ill Repute” starts with the breaking of a massive cornice. The terrifying tumble of snow cascades down a peak as two photographers and four skiers, unharmed yet shaken, remain at the top. They look down with fear, yet they are suddenly an completely focused. This is the moment—the day—that more than a fortnight of Alaskan backcountry camping has lead to. 

McKenna Peterson, one of SCOTT’s athletes and an accomplished professional freeride skier, reflects on a decision and a line that may not have been the focus of the film, but reveals the uncertainty and the hidden discoveries that only the Alaskan mountains can bring. In the film, there is a group decision to go for the line of the trip, the Brothel Spine, despite less-than-perfect conditions. What was going through your mind during that moment?

McKenna Peterson: This wasn’t explicitly stated in the film, but a few days previous to that moment, we completed a scouting mission of the line. We saw that a portion of the wall had ripped out, and it looked terrifying. That night, as we were discussing the plans to go, I backed out. It just didn’t feel right to me. The guys were still planning on going and I would assist and be safety. Yet, when the boys woke up the next morning, they had the same conversation again and decided not to go. 

We waited. Two days later, after we we had gained some confidence and let the snowpack settle a bit more, we made the decision—Let’s do it.

The morning of that line, we started in the dark and in the cold and traveled during the sunrise, experiencing that energy you get when you watch the sun come up. You’re out in the middle of nowhere, and everything just works.

One of the best parts about going for that line that we don’t really talk about in the film is how we got there. We had to climb up about 1500 vertical feet, ski down a little bit and then climb up to the top of the Brothel. That ski down before the Brothel climb was the best snow we found on the entire trip.

Morning Light
McKenna Peterson and team’s sunrise start. Photo credit to Elliot Bernhagen

Was that filmed at all or was it just your moment?

No, the photographers had gone a different route to get the angle on the spine wall. It was just the four skiers, standing atop this big, open bowl that wasn’t too steep and was north facing. Henry dropped in first and just disappeared in snow. It was waist deep cold smoke. It was awesome.

We ended up taking that as far as we could, even though it meant climbing an extra amount to get back to the top, just because it was so good. We have no footage of it—the line or all of us smiling, giggling, and high-fiving at the bottom.

After that you finally get to the Brothel Spine, what’s going through your mind at the top of the big line and the moment you all have been waiting for? Are you nervous?

I remember getting to the top of the Brothel, looking down, and thinking woah. I was shaky—full on clumsy as I took off my crampons. I remember looking over to the photographers and hearing this loud tumble and seeing a big cloud of smoke that was heart-sinkingly scary. The photographers had knocked off the cornice they were standing on. They were fine, and in a way, I think that cornice break was a good thing: It set my mind from being nervous into that kind of closed state with serious focus.

In that state of focus and right before you dropped, what were you thinking?

I have a routine that I go through before I drop into a big line that intimidates me, focusing on strength, center, confidence, and patience.

I think strength—I feel and get some movement in my knees. I think center— I tighten my core and stand up straight. I think confidence—I roll my shoulders back and kinda psych myself up, using positive affirmations. I think patience—I smile and remember that this is fun. Then, breathe out and go.

Technical descent
McKenna Peterson’s technical descent.Photo credit to Elliot Bernhagen

What were some of the highlights of that line. Was this the highlight of the trip or was it that drop and cold-smoked snow just a minute before?

It was everything that went into that entire day. Skiing the spine wall was definitely awesome. I was scared going into it and so timid in how I skied it. Getting to the bottom of the spine wall, I looked back up and was like “Ooo, I could have done that better,” but I was still psyched—such an adrenaline rush.

And then, there was the exit of the glacier—another piece of the puzzle that we didn’t talk about in the movie since it wasn’t filmed. After the Brothel, we had another couple thousand feet of vert that we needed to ski to get to the valley floor. It was all heavily glaciated and gnarly to navigate. It was the crux of the whole mission.

Sam Cohen spent so much time finding a way through that icefall that we navigated it perfectly, all because of his research and his preparation. We were skiing over these tiny ice bridges with huge holes on each side. We were spread out watching each other the entire time. [Peterson smiles and laughs] We were so psyched when we got the bottom.

You spent close to three weeks waiting for this perfect moment in time to ski one line. Why? What is this all about?

Just being out there is an adventure in itself. Winter camping, the beauty of the landscape, being secluded and cut off from all technology and society, it was so grounding and so enjoyable. Even if we didn’t get the line, it would have been a successful trip.

I remember one night the northern lights just exploded over us. It was the best northern lights show I have ever seen. We went out and skied under the lights from midnight until 3 A.M. Experiences like that aren’t the most intense or “Look at me I’m so cool”, but they are things that stay with you forever.

Skinning underneath the Northern Lights
Skiing underneath the northern lights.Photo credit to Elliot Bernhagen

Do you think that there is any part in this experience that is about  “Look at me, I’m so intense?”

I think maybe in the beginning when you’re thinking about going on that trip and you’re in the planning process. You think, “Alright this is cool. I’m a badass”. 

Yet, when you actually get out there, it’s humbling. And you need to stay humbled. It’s all just too big. You have to respect it.

Winter Camping
Winter camping in the Fairweather Range.Photo credit to Elliot Bernhagen

Alongside your skiing and Alaskan adventures, you have been working with the K2 Alliance. What are you most excited about?

Right now, I’m so excited because we are doing a complete overhaul of the freeride line. We are going to make some badass and charging skis.

I think it’s so cool K2 is putting the resources into actively asking the women [in the design and prototyping process]. They are having me test different versions of skis, and they are flying me out to production facilities for my opinion. It’s cool to see a brand stand behind that, and not just create something and put the women’s ski label on it.

Things that upset me about the industry is talk about there not being a need to separate women’s and men’s skis. If K2 decided to get rid of the women’s line and just do one line of unisex skis, I wouldn’t have a voice and skis would just be designed by men. That’s the way the world is: There are more men in this industry than there are women.

Women need to have a voice and it’s brands like K2 and Blizzard that are giving them a platform to speak on and it’s cool. Anybody can ski on any skis—men can ski on women’s skis. If you’re a woman and you like the dudes skis more, go ski on them. It’s just cool that these options exist.