Zak Hammill

Spring break is a time for relaxation, reflection and recharging for the upcoming season. The possibilities are endless, you could fly somewhere the sun shines, the drinks are cold, and the sand is white or you could travel out into the wilderness where the weather is unpredictable, struggles are a guarantee, and unforgettable memories will be formed. During the Spring break of 2017 my buddy Sean Johnson and I decided, the hell with the beaches, let’s go find our Alaskan paradise on a few glaciers. In the weeks leading up to the trip we planned what to do and where to go during our reprieve from school and our jobs.  After some weather patterns didn’t seem to be going in our favor for a trip to the Delta mountains in the Alaska Range, we decided on a ski traverse.  The route was straight forward on our maps, a multi-day traverse from Portage Lake south to Moose Pass. We were going to give ourselves five to six ski days to complete what we thought was going to be a 45-mile ski. 

A few trips to the Fred Meyer and digging gear out of our garages and the packing was quickly sorted out. We decided on taking sleds to lighten the loads on our shoulders. Plus, the glaciers we were crossing did not have rapid elevation gain so sleds would make the trip much easier, so we thought. However, there was a holdup the only piece of gear I was missing for the trip was the sled and much to my dismay I asked around to borrow a sled, but was not having any luck. Then it hit me there were sleds over at my work I could borrow. I went over to the ski jumps and grabbed the first sled I could find. A sun-faded pink sled that looked like it had it’s own share of stories to go around. We were now all packed and ready for the trip.

Sean picked me up around 10 AM and we were off to Portage. We got down to Portage after stopping in Girdwood for some extra snacks and a bottle of Jim Beam(always a necessity). The sun was beaming down onto the frozen lake and our spirits were high. Pulling our sleds we got a confused look by everyone we passed in the parking lot. The lake had a line of disconnected dots of various groups of people soaking in the rays and itching to see the beauty of the Portage glacier, it’s massive blue chunks toppled in a mess of a heap. Groups of people casually moved across the frozen lake with their day packs as we drudged along with expedition sized backpacks pulling sleds. I was so stoked to finally be headed out, 5-6 days in the mountains with nothing but good company and laughs ahead of us. 

Trouble struck within the first two hours, as we were headed up a hill to get on the Burns Glacier we had to cross a frozen creek. I watched Sean struggle with his sled so I looked for a better place to cross. I went up creek and found what I thought was a more mellow area to cross. Confident in my skiing skills I looked over to Sean and joked, “Hey check out my sweet skin skiing skills.” I skied down onto the creek and back up the other side, excited for one moment, until I realized my sled was picking up too much speed and going to nose into the creek bank. Sure enough it slammed into the creek bank and “CRACK!” I felt like a totally idiot as I looked at the broken front section of my sled. Sean laughed and quickly located a knife so I could cut out new holes for the front of my sled. After a30 minute break we were ready to roll again, my confidence in my sled renewed. We ended up having to double carry sections getting onto the Burns Glacier due to the steepness of the hills and quality of snow. Once, on the glacier we discovered an incredible ice cave, it’s opening was like a mouth gaping open at the toe of the glacier. The closer we came to the entrance the more aware and amazed we became at it’s size.  We spent a short time enjoying this natural wonder and both realized this trip was already worth it! Shortly after we found the ice cave we made our first camp. Everything was perfect, the camp had incredible views and we were basking in a moonlit wilderness away from people and responsibilities, and my sled was still doing half way decent.

 The next morning, we woke up and got moving. We traveled up the Burns Glacier onto the Spencer Glacier, between the two glaciers we came to a pass overlooking Blackstone Bay. It was gorgeous mountains, glaciers, and the ocean as far as you could see. We located our route on the GPS and found that we were going to head down the glacier. Skiing with sleds is terrible, nothing new here, but to add to the already taxing ordeal we started down into a field of sastrugis. Needless to say, my sled did not like this, and within 200 feet it made hard contact exploding the whole front end. 15 minutes later I made it down to where Sean was waiting for me. I showed him my sled and we both laughed about it, me a little more of a nervous laugh. We continue another four miles and made camp for the night. 

The next day was a six mile uphill slog towards another mountain pass. This day turned into the beginning of a long trip of me pulling a dead-weight sled. The front end was so beat up the sled would plow and dig into the snow, and had no ability to track. I tried turning the sled around, but found the results to be consistent with the original method. I finally caught up to Sean and expressed my anger with the sled. We discussed the possibility of taking all my gear off the sled and putting into my pack. Unfortunately, we packed a bit heavy for the trip and there was not enough room, instead we re-worked the rigging and made things a little smoother. Continuing to the pass we found ourselves camping 400 vertical feet and a half mile from the pass. It was a long day and I was feeling pretty wrecked from pulling my junk sled. 

Day 4 started with some promise, once at the top of the pass it was all downhill, according to our maps. As I crested the pass I felt relieved. We took a moment to take in the beauty of the Trail glacier, and then continued down. Half broken sled and all, I skied down the upper Trail glacier excited to be on the back stretch of the trip. Of course, we had forgotten about the other pass that we had to go over. As we approached it I began to feel a bit nervous. The pass needed to be traversed, and the skin track that we would put down was a no-fall situation. Sean lead up the pass and was eventually out of sight. Struggling to keep my sled upright I followed his tracks. Once high up on the pass I was committed and my sled was determined to flip over and be dragged upside down, which pulled my backpack down towards the icefall below. I slowly concentrated on each step I took, and was fully aware of what my sled was going to do next. Hoping to see Sean so I could call out for help I looked forward. He was nowhere in sight and I was on my own. After 15 minutes of some of the most nerve racking skinning I have done I was at the top and looking at the next six miles of open slightly downhill glacier we would travel across. 

In my head I thought that there were no more major challenges just mindless skinning for 20 miles, easy. The slog across the glacier was uneventful and soon we would be exiting the icefield. In theory, our exit seemed easy, get off the glacier and then travel 15 miles or so downriver and across Grant Lake to Moose Pass. The problem was that my feet were in major disrepair and our future of bushwhacking was more heinous than I have ever done. Getting to our camp in the river drainage that night put us at a 16-mile day. I was happy for many different reason, we were not moving, we only had 11 miles to go, my feet were out of my ski boots, and most importantly we were going to be out on the day of my girlfriend’s birthday. The last one was the most important, I already felt bad that I was doing the trip without her and I was going to potentially be gone for her birthday. 

I was thrilled for the next day, but when that morning came I once again became nervous. After comparing feet, it was obvious that mine were in much worse shape than Sean’s, we joked about it a lot to keep the mood light, but when it came to putting on my ski boots again I was not sure I was going to be able to get my feet in them. Lucky for me they fit but it was excruciating. “Who cares we will be out today and my feet will be fine. It is only pain,” is what I kept telling myself. Camp was broken down and we were off on our final day. 

Quickly, travel became hard, the forest was thick and pulling sleds through it was miserable. We even found ourselves throwing our sleds, packs, and skis off multiple small cliffs then down-climbing the cliff itself to get through certain sections. Optimism slowly left my body like the warmth of a setting sun. My sled was continuously flipping over and my duffle bag would eject from the sled. Each time pushing my patience closer to breaking with every mishap. Sean was way ahead of me at this point and I was slowing our travel down far too much. A variety of different swear-word combinations left my mouth every time the sled fell into a tree well or flipped over. At my wits end with the sled I started to nicely talk to it, “Please sled just make it a half mile without flipping over.” Sadly, this did not work. Drained emotionally and physically I looked to Sean for some positivity, but he was on his last straw as well, and all positive vibes had left both of us. 

As we bushwhacked our way through the forest of the Kenai Peninsula I desperately wanted out. I felt like a wild animal trapped in a maze. Then a small miracle happened, as I was triple carrying gear I heard Sean’s voice shout in excitement, “SNOWMACHINE TRACKS!” I could not believe what I heard and ran as fast as I could to where he was, and sure enough there were tracks. Optimism swelled back into my mind and energy resurged into my body.  I ran back up the hill retrieved my skis and pack, and started down the snow machine track. A mile later we were at the far end of Grant lake, but my sled was weighing me down hard. Six miles is all we had left. Excited I got on the phone and called my girlfriend to see if she would come get us four hours later. She is a far better human being than I am, coming on her birthday to pick us up. 

Life was back in us and we started out across the frozen lake. The weather started to deteriorate, as snow began to fall and the light shifted to an overcast, gloomy setting. Halfway across the lake my legs felt disconnected from my body and I was slowing up. I needed to break and Sean could tell that I was physically wiped out. We started out again, but I was hurting. Sean, being a great friend and aware of the situation, told me I could clip my sled to his and he would pull them both. I questioned his comment but gave in after a little deliberation. For two miles Sean pulled two sleds and carried his pack which gave me the strength to rally. Finally we reached the end of the lake and exited onto more snowmachine tracks. I took my sled back for what would be the last mile or so of the trip. 

As we started through the woods my sled instantly took a dive into a tree well. I knew the drill and quickly pulled my sled out of the tree well, and heard Sean ask, “How heavy is your duffle?” I responded about 20-25 pounds. Sean then said throw that thing over my shoulders I will walk with it out. Without argument I did, and then watched as this pack mule of a human being charged through the woods. Even skiing down hills, with one pretty epic wipeout, Sean powered on to the highway. It was an incredible feat and I feel in debt to him because of it. After we made it to the highway we laughed and hugged, proud of our accomplishments and effort.  We situated our gear and sent Natasha our location.

The final moment of truth for me was taking off my ski boots, the pain at this point was nearly unbearable and I knew my feet were going to be pulverized. I got my boots off and instantly noticed my big toe was crushed and my heels were flowing with blood.  The reality of their status was not important, I was stoked we were out and in time headed home for pizza and beer. Half an hour later Natasha showed up and being the amazing person she is came unprompted with pizza, snacks, and cold beer. We laughed and told stories all the way back to Portage. My feet were wrecked, but I could not be happier. Our trip was a success and our friendship grew stronger. Thanks Sean for making this trip happen I will never forget it, and if I do I can always look to the scars on my feet. Now it’s time for new ski boots!

 

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