UN­TRACKED ALASKA

On an ex­pe­di­tion to the Ruth Glacier, our scout dis­cov­ers a De­nali few have seen.

Backpacker - - Contents - By Gordy Me­groz

I’ve come here to find out just how good— and empty—the Ruth Glacier re­ally is. De­nali is known for back­pack­ing and moun­taineer­ing. Could it also har­bor some of the world’s best back­coun­try ski­ing?

Dan Corn, a guide with 11 years of ex­pe­ri­ence in De­nali, isn’t fazed by the fog. We’re stand­ing on the glacier and he ges­tures to­ward the socked-in ter­rain, cat­a­logu­ing in­vis­i­ble fea­tures like a gar­dener tick­ing off flow­ers yet to bloom: “The Rooster Comb, Dan Beard, the Ja­panese Couloir.” He pauses, then adds, “I have the gear to get you into any shenani­gans you want.”

The of­fer is ex­cit­ing and a lit­tle un­nerv­ing. The moun­tains rise im­pos­ingly from the glacier, cre­at­ing a 35-square-mile alpine won­der­land that’s so re­mote vis­i­tors must ar­rive by bush plane. And once here, reach­ing the ter­rain is an ad­ven­ture that in­volves nav­i­gat­ing ice­fall and avoid­ing hid­den crevasses. Corn leads the way, and I start skin­ning across the glacier, along with Mar­mot ath­lete Jess McMil­lan and pho­tog­ra­pher Cam McLeod. We’re at­tached to each other with a rope and keep about two body lengths apart. If one of us breaks through a crevasse, the oth­ers will serve as an­chors. Corn, 34, is lanky with a boy­ish face. He spent much of his youth in New Hamp­shire and speaks with the dic­tion of a New Eng­land farmer. “When you take your skins off on a glacier,” he ad­vises, “leave one ski on so you don’t sink in deep snow and, if you do fall into a crevasse, hope­fully that ski will catch you.”

“Hope­fully” is not a word you want to hear from a guide, but we make it across with­out in­ci­dent. The fog thins as we climb higher on Mt. Dickey, a nearly 10,000-foot­tall moun­tain with a bony ridge­line that’s flanked with gi­ant aprons of snow. The pitch grows in­creas­ingly pre­cip­i­tous as we as­cend. To our right, we spy a hang­ing serac with trac­tor trailer-size chunks of ice cling­ing to near-ver­ti­cal gran­ite walls.

“This is a lot steeper than it looked from the bot­tom,” McLeod says as we boot through knee-deep snow.

“It looked like a gen­tle slope be­cause ev­ery­thing around it is so big and raw,” says McMil­lan, 40, a blond-haired, blue-eyed for­mer ski racer from Jack­son, Wy­oming. She’s spent 12 years trav­el­ing the world to make ski films, and is also get­ting her first taste of the De­nali back­coun­try.

Af­ter posthol­ing for 2,000 ver­ti­cal feet, we stop just be­low a rocky out­crop and Corn digs a pit to check the snow sta­bil­ity. The Alaska Range ben­e­fits from the mar­itime cli­mate with wet­ter-than-av­er­age snow. But though the snow­pack is rel­a­tively sta­ble here, slides do hap­pen.

“There are a few lay­ers of crust, but they’re deep,” Corn says. “I have to­tal con­fi­dence in this snow.”

I don’t need any more en­cour­age­ment. Vis­i­bil­ity be damned, I’m about to ski the most re­mote slope I’ve ever been on. I push off down the moun­tain. The hill is wide open with a shaded as­pect that’s hold­ing the fluffier snow. A ray of sun­shine pokes through the fog and il­lu­mi­nates 12,240-foot Mt. Hunt­ing­ton. As I be­gin pick­ing up speed on the 45-de­gree slope, pow­der blows around me. I can’t help but let out a yelp of joy—an im­pulse I usu­ally sup­press. Five min­utes later, I’m at the bot­tom, a grin on my face.

IT’S FOUR IN THE AF­TER­NOON AND A THICK FOG HANGS OVER RUTH GLACIER. IT CON­CEALS THE 12,000-FOOT PEAKS THAT RISE ABOVE THE AMPHITHEATER OF ICE, DROPS THE TEM­PER­A­TURE TO ABOUT 10°F, AND FLAT­TENS THE LIGHT. NOT IDEAL CON­DI­TIONS FOR SKI­ING. THAT’S A SHAME, BE­CAUSE THE MOUN­TAINS CIR­CLING THE GLACIER, IN THE HEART OF DE­NALI NA­TIONAL PARK, ARE SUP­POS­EDLY FLUSH WITH COULOIRS, SPINES, AND OPEN POW­DER FACES. THE FEW WHO HAVE BEEN HERE SAY IT’S WORLD-CLASS TER­RAIN THAT LACKS ONLY ONE THING: SKIERS.

THE SMILE LASTS

all the way back to our base­camp atop a nunatak—an is­land­like out­crop of rock that over­looks the glacier and sur­round­ing peaks. It’s an ice­berg of stone, and we just see the tip. The nunatak holds a small, one-room cabin and sev­eral win­ter tents—our home for five days.

I’ve come to the Ruth with a crew from War­ren Miller En­ter­tain­ment, here to film a seg­ment for an up­com­ing movie, Face of Win­ter. Mar­mot has part­nered with War­ren Miller on the De­nali shoot, send­ing two ath­letes, McMil­lan and For­rest Jill­son, who also lives in Jack­son. At 31, Jill­son has had some suc­cess in freeski­ing com­pe­ti­tions, but this is his first movie shoot in a far­away lo­cale. I’m just a writer who lucked out. Corn has been as­signed to guide us on an ex­plo­ration of an area known as the Don Shel­don Amphitheater.

The re­gion’s name­sake would have been pleased. Sixty years ear­lier, Shel­don, a bush pilot liv­ing in Tal­keetna, stood on the Ruth Glacier for the first time and re­al­ized two things: This place is spe­cial, and he wanted to share it with the world. He’d flown to the glacier to help on an Alaska Range sur­vey project. On the far south end of the Ruth, Shel­don dis­cov­ered the nunatak, where the team could set up map­ping equip­ment and mea­sure the height of peaks.

But Shel­don had big­ger plans for the area. Where oth­ers saw a frozen, bar­ren land­scape, he saw an alpine heaven. Though De­nali Na­tional Park (at the time, McKin­ley) had been formed in 1917, the Ruth Glacier area sat just out­side its bound­aries. In 1955, Shel­don, un­der the Homestead Act, put a claim on 4.9 acres, and en­vi­sioned one day op­er­at­ing the prop­erty as a ski des­ti­na­tion, com­plete with a lodge and rope tow. In 1966, he built the small, hexag­o­nal cabin—a 212-square­foot shel­ter with a wood­stove, some book­shelves, and an out­build­ing—and be­gan draw­ing up plans for a much larger chalet. He also started ad­ver­tis­ing, send­ing out posters that en­cour­aged peo­ple to “Ski McKin­ley.”

“He thought that ev­ery­body on the planet should see this in­cred­i­ble place,” says Robert Shel­don, 47, Don’s son. “The el­e­va­tion is only 6,000 feet, so he felt peo­ple could come and ac­cli­ma­tize quickly.” And de­spite the ex­treme-look­ing scenery, you don’t need to be an ex­pert to ski here. There are plenty of low-hang­ing in­ter­me­di­ate slopes and thou­sands of feet of 30-de­gree faces that are ap­proach­able and pow­dery.

De­spite the dif­fi­cult ac­cess—it’s a 40-minute flight from Tal­keetna—the Ruth Glacier al­most im­me­di­ately be­gan at­tract­ing skiers. But Shel­don died in 1975 af­ter a bat­tle with can­cer—be­fore he could build the

chalet or in­stall the rope tow.

Then, in 1980, the park ex­panded to in­clude the Ruth Glacier. The land owned by the Shel­dons was grand­fa­thered in, but the park rules changed the com­plex­ion of the area. “They as­serted that, if you ven­tured off of our prop­erty on a com­mer­cial trek, you needed to have a guide,” Robert says. (All com­mer­cial trips on the glacier are re­quired to have a guide.) With the new rule in place and with­out any­body shep­herd­ing Don Shel­don’s vi­sion, fewer and fewer peo­ple went to the Ruth to ski.

That’s hard to be­lieve even af­ter a short time here. I’d flown into the glacier through a cor­ri­dor of gran­ite that yawned into an open sea of the purest white. And af­ter just one out­ing on skis, in ques­tion­able con­di­tions, I’ve caught a glimpse of what Shel­don saw.

But word of the area is get­ting out, thanks to Robert Shel­don, who is pick­ing up where his fa­ther left off. In 2017, Robert fol­lowed through on his fa­ther’s plan and built a 2,000-square-foot lodge on the nunatak, not far from the orig­i­nal hut. With metal con­struc­tion, large win­dows, com­fort­able fur­nish­ings, and an ob­ser­va­tion deck, it’s a deluxe out­post by any mea­sure.

Pre­fer to rough it? That min­i­mal­ist cabin is still avail­able. For our large group, we use the hut for cook­ing and melt­ing wa­ter, and camp nearby. With warm gear—temps drop to sin­gle dig­its dur­ing our March trip—it’s a wel­come ver­sion of in­door/out­door liv­ing. Most nights, I’m asleep be­fore dark.

One evening, though, Jill­son, McLeod, and I stay up later than my usual 8 p.m. bed­time. We bun­dle our­selves in down lay­ers and kick back in lawn chairs out­side the cabin. With the sky com­pletely clear, the full moon and bright stars cast long, day­like shad­ows over the glacier, and the snow glows sil­ver. Shoot­ing stars ping through the meso­sphere, pro­vid­ing a light show like noth­ing else I’ve seen.

AF­TER OUR AF­TER­NOON

of “poor” ski­ing con­di­tions, the sky clears and we fol­low a pre­dictable rou­tine over the next few days: wake up to spin­drift catch­ing pink morn­ing light on the peaks, suit up, and head out. Each day, we cover at least 10 miles.

Corn leads the way, but it’s hard to go wrong. The amphitheater is crowded with spines, couloirs, and pow­der slopes. We find great stuff just an hour-long skin from camp; on other days, we trek for more than three hours be­fore we make a turn. It’s hard to say what has and hasn’t been skied be­fore, but due to the plen­ti­ful ter­rain and dearth of skiers that have made it here, there’s a pretty good chance that many of the lines we ski are first de­scents.

One morn­ing, we skin up a mod­er­ate face as the sun beats down and re­flects off the snow, mak­ing it feel like it’s about 90°F. I strip down to a T-shirt, keep trekking, and start telling Corn that I’m wor­ried I didn’t bring enough wa­ter. Then, mid-sen­tence, I stop short. “Holy . . .” I say as I reach the top of the slope.

Jill­son, a 6-foot, 200-pound beast of an ath­lete, had ar­rived five min­utes be­fore me. “Doesn’t it look like it’s out of a movie?” he asks. “It doesn’t look real.”

Be­tween the gran­ite walls of a gi­ant couloir, I can see across the val­ley. Be­low is the glacier and its pocked and un­du­lat­ing fea­tures. It looks lu­nar. Di­rectly in front of me is the Moose’s Tooth, which looks, no sur­prise, like a gi­ant mo­lar. The east side of the moun­tain, which ap­pears to be at least 5,000 ver­ti­cal feet, is some­how cov­ered in a thick layer of cor­ru­gated ice, cling­ing im­prob­a­bly to the sheer walls. “There’s a hang­ing glacier up there that’s big enough to land a plane on,” Corn says. The moun­tain, first sum­mited in 1964, is fa­mous among clim­bers.

Af­ter an­other de­scent that leaves me grin­ning and speech­less, we put our skins back on and trek across the glacier, stop­ping in the mid­dle for a snack. “Now you get a bet­ter per­spec­tive of the Ruth,” Corn says. It’s true. From the mid­dle of the glacier, sur­rounded by tow­er­ing moun­tains, I feel like a speck. All around us are windswept dunes of snow.

“It’s like we’re walk­ing across the Sa­hara with Yosemite all around us,” McLeod says. “It’s hard to take ev­ery­thing in at the same time with­out be­ing com­pletely over­whelmed.”

We skin for more than three hours, un­til we reach the top of a small ridge­line that lies be­low the sharp spire of Ex­plor­ers Peak. The film crew shoots Jill­son and McMil­lan as they skin and ski a sun­baked line. I lap a few runs down a mel­low, 1,000-foot face, mak­ing shin-deep turns in creamy snow.

Is this the best back­coun­try ski­ing in the world? The world is a big place, but I will say this: We have 35 square miles of out­ra­geous ter­rain to our­selves. De­nali is only 10 miles away. Wispy clouds puff from the 20,310foot peak like a smoke­stack. The only sound I hear is far­away ice­fall.

MY LAST DAY

on the glacier, we push off from the nunatak and ski down a gen­tle slope to­ward the Rooster Comb, a peak that un­can­nily re­sem­bles its moniker. While the film crew goes to work, Corn and I con­tinue, me­an­der­ing around deep crevasses and over gi­ant chunks of ice. When we reach what seems to be an im­pass­able sec­tion sur­rounded by 20-foot-high walls of snow, Corn breaks out his avalanche shovel and spends 30 min­utes ex­ca­vat­ing a path, chip­ping a ramp into the snow while bal­anc­ing above a bot­tom­less abyss. If he falls, he re­minds me, I need to be his an­chor. “Then we’ll just talk,” he says. He doesn’t elab­o­rate.

We make it through and reach a smaller amphitheater, about 2 square miles of hang­ing ser­acs and jagged peaks. The slopes are loaded with pow­der. Corn and I take a few laps and then, as the day winds down, we find a van­tage to watch Jill­son and McMil­lan ski a steep spine. So far, I haven’t heard McMil­lan voice any emo­tion dur­ing de­scents. (She’s “work­ing.”) But as she makes her way down, she lets out a joy­ful yell. I’m glad I’m not the only one who couldn’t sti­fle the stoke. On the skin out, I ask her how the area com­pares to the best spots she’s skied.

“We all have 100 things we should do be­fore we die,” she says. “I didn’t even know this was one of them and now I need to come back.”

The next morn­ing, I walk down to the airstrip and hop onto my flight back to Tal­keetna. The plane takes off and rounds the glacier’s bend, soar­ing past the Gar­goyle, a nearly 7,000-foot-tall “boul­der,” and down the cor­ri­dor of moun­tains, past the Moose’s Tooth and the Bear’s Tooth. The sun bursts through the win­dow and warms me into a so­lar daze. For nearly a week, I skinned and skied for eight hours a day, learned the ins and outs of glacier travel, saw ter­rain that dwarfs most moun­tain ranges, and col­lapsed in a tent each night. And dis­cov­ered that the ru­mors about the Ruth Glacier are not quite ac­cu­rate. It’s bet­ter than any­one says.

Top: Big days re­quire early starts. Right: McMil­lan out­side of her tent. The Shel­don Moun­tain House is cramped for a big group, so the crew com­bined it with camp­ing.

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