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‘Winter Starts Now,’ the 72nd annual ski and snowboard film from Warren Miller Entertainment comes to a theater near you between October 20 and December 30. Find local show times, and get free tickets, premium seating, and more by joining Outside+ today.
“She’s kind of the most epic lady ever. She gives off this aura that makes you feel like, ‘Yeah, I would trust you with my life.’”
Alaska makes strong impressions on skiers, but after eights days aboard a boat named the Babkin in Prince William Sound last spring, skier Marcus Caston had more to say about the boat’s captain than the mountains she took them to ski. Along with fellow castmate Connery Lundin, Caston met Alex von Wichman while her 58-foot fishing vessel served as portable ski-touring digs for a self-powered trip through the legendary Chugach Mountains while filming for “Winter Starts Now,” the latest Warren Miller Entertainment project premiering Oct. 20.
Each day, Captain von Wichman would take the pair to a new beach, ferry the skiers ashore, and then guide Nick D’Alessio would lead them up into North America’s most massive alpine. In a dream scenario that seems like it should be out of Norway, they would then climb from and ski right back down to the beach. When they got back, their Captain, a born-and-raised Alaskan, would have a warm meal and beer ready, along with endless stories of the mountains and sea.
“It’s like she’s an Encyclopedia,” Caston remembers. “Basically, if you could see it from the boat, she knew everything about it: from the mountains to the animals. She’s this hardcore Alaskan lady, and those kinds of people can be kind of intimidating, but she’s just super sweet.”
Truly, soft-hearted is not the image the 49th state usually gives off. The Last Frontier is famous for how hardened the people up there are, but ask 55-year-old von Wichman, and though being in charge as a woman has historically been rare, it’s never felt out of the ordinary to her.
“Yeah, there weren’t very many women on boats back then,” she admits about her beginnings. “Unless it was family-owned and operated.”
But that was exactly the case for her, she says.
“My parents were outdoorsy and loved the water. So it started with small stuff like canoes and kayaks, and then we got a 21-foot outboard boat that we played with in between Seward and Anchorage and Whittier. I think really, my father needed a tax write-off. But I think his real motive was trying to teach his kids responsibility, how to keep things working, and how to fix things when they break. So we started commercial fishing with our first boat.”
The work was its own reward, and von Wichman was hooked. So much so that she and her brother, Brad, bought the Babkin from their folks in high school to start saving money for college by salmon fishing in the summers. Despite being one of the rare females on the water, no one ever made her feel out of place.
“I mean, it’s just what I was used to, I guess. My parents offered a ton of support; you know, you could be and do anything you want to do if you just put your mind to it and if you’re serious about it.”
And she was. Then the Exxon Valdez oil spill happened in 1989, and the price of salmon plummeted. She and Brad were forced to turn their attention to doing charters instead. It wasn’t as profitable, but it turned out they liked it a lot more. There were all sorts of students and researchers who needed to get up and down the coastline, as there continue to be today.
Throughout that time, von Wichman also earned a degree in French from the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City, where she ski raced. She spent seven years in Utah before returning to Alaska, where she continued to ski coach for a total of 17 years in the end. Skiing was so much fun, she says, it derailed her other plan of going to medical school. During that period she’d also tried telemarking, which, back in the day, was the easiest way to ski tour. She fell in love with that next and started using the Babkin to do her own backcountry trips with friends back in 1997.
She’s now spent over two decades getting to know Prince William Sound as intimately as she can, and offers that experience up to any takers hardy enough. And how the Warren Miller Entertainment crew did aboard the Babkin will be featured in this fall’s release, “Winter Starts Now.”
“The inside of the boat is pretty comfortable,” von Wichman says, noting it’s still a marine environment, and that spring in Alaska is basically just winter. Plus there’s the weather: Alaska is notorious for being fickle. Living on a boat for up to 10 days, in the damp fetch of giant peaks certainly isn’t luxury, and neither is earning your turns. It’s for a certain kind of person. But that natural filter, von Wichman says, has always kept her in good company. And Caston and Lundin were no exception.