The wind came from the northwest. It blew down from the glacier-studded peaks of the Alaska Range, through the icebergs of Turnagain Arm and across the frozen expanse of the Twenty Mile River. It was an unrelenting wind, the kind that fells trees, shapes mountains and drives people to their firesides. And there I was among the sculptured snow ridges and frozen grass on the banks of the Twenty Mile, attached to a giant kite, wearing a pair of skis.
When I signed up for snow-kiting in Alaska, I didn’t think about how it would feel to be bracing myself against a 25 mph wind as I watched my kite flutter in the snow a hundred feet off, threatening to whip up into the air at any moment. All that kept it down was my hand on the rope “brake,” tight against my hip.
I could barely hear Tom Fredericks, my upbeat instructor, shouting in my ear, “Now, it’s going to pull real hard when it first comes up,” before the rest of his words disappeared into the wind.
Frankly, I was scared.
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But then, I hadn’t come to Alaska in winter to take it easy. I let go of the brake. Seconds later, I was flying.
Colorado, Utah, Wyoming — these are the places one thinks of as winter sports paradises in the United States. But Alaska? Too dark, you might say. Too cold. Too, well, extreme. One imagines frostbite temperatures, cloud-scraping mountains and tundra too inhospitable for trees.
The numbers bear out the prejudice: In spring and summer last year, nearly 1.2 million people visited Alaska for vacation; in fall and winter, that number was just 34,000.
But in February and March, highs are in the “balmy” 30s in Anchorage, and the daylight hours are growing longer. Conveniently for winter-sports enthusiasts, most of the 600 inches of snow the Chugach Mountains see each year remains.
Still, few people go, leaving one of our country’s largest snowy playgrounds unvisited by any but locals and the few who are savvy enough to make the trip.
What this means is Anchorage has a robust sports scene in which tourists are almost an afterthought. The city is full of young, fit people whose garages are overflowing with snowshoes, ice axes, skis, snowmobiles and other adrenaline paraphernalia. And they play a lot of different sports.
Skiing (backcountry, cross-country and alpine) and snowmobiling (called snow-machining in Alaska) are probably the most popular, followed by dog mushing. After that come ice climbing, skijoring (cross-country skiing pulled by a dog) and snow biking. Then you get into sports that no one in their right mind would do, like snow-kiting, winter surfing and scuba diving (in dry suits).
It’s true that these sports can be done elsewhere. Backcountry skiing is all the rage in the Pacific Northwest; ice climbing is popular from Colorado to Vermont. But Alaska has more snow, more ice, more wind, taller mountains and lower tree lines than pretty much anywhere else. When it comes to extreme sports in the winter, Alaska is as extreme as it gets.
The sports I chose during my recent trip were snow-kiting, ice climbing and snow biking. I chose these not only because I had never done them but also because they are well suited to the state: snow-kiting for the vast expanses of windy tundra, ice climbing because of all the glaciers and frozen waterfalls, and snow biking because of Anchorage’s extensive system of winter trails.
Since Anchorage and its surroundings are home to more than half the state’s population, I decided to base myself there. If Alaska’s winter sports scene is centered around residents, then I wanted to be where the people were. I found the city itself to be uninspiring, but the city itself is not the point; the surrounding areas are.
Carried by the wind
And so, on a clear day, my sister, Tara, and I drove south out of Anchorage on the Seward Highway toward Turnagain Pass, a stretch of road rightly hailed as one of the most scenic drives in the country.
We met Tom Fredericks in a pull-off before the highway crossed the Twenty Mile River. He was an energetic man in a green flight suit. As far as I could tell from the Web, he was the only person in Alaska teaching snow-kiting professionally.
All that is needed for snow-kiting is normal alpine ski equipment, a 3-plus-square-meter kite, a field of snow and wind. Tom told me of a trip he took last year to a tundra island, hooking a couple of plastic sleds to himself to carry gear and sailing 40 miles to a remote cabin. Traveling over the earth by the force of its own breath — the idea had tremendous appeal.
First, he gave a demonstration using his 6-meter kite. He laid out the kite, then hooked its lines to a harness around his waist. Using a 2-foot handlebar attached to ropes on either side of the kite, he pulled the kite into the air and rocketed across the field, controlling his speed and direction by tilting the handlebar and making the kite dip and dive.
Snow kiters can travel in only a fairly narrow range of directions perpendicular to the wind, so at first Tom just went out and back across the field, an activity snow kiters call “mowing the lawn.” Then he started doing jumps. It seemed impossible in the middle of a flat field, but with a sharp tug on the bar, Tom suddenly flew 6, 8 feet off the ground.
When my turn came, Tom wisely hooked me to a 3-meter training kite. At first I tried controlling the kite without my skis on; even with the smaller kite, the wind tossed and dragged me several feet.
Then came time to put the skis on.
I survived the first jolt of the kite ripping me forward and rode its strength along the banks of the Twenty Mile at maybe 15 mph. I felt as if I had lassoed a runaway horse and was hanging on for dear life, an unending chiaroscuro of snow and ice disappearing beneath my skis. It was terrifying; it was exhilarating. But then the wind began to gust, and the kite tangled, bringing me to a halt. I was done.
Climbing a waterfall
The next day on the way to a seep near Portage Glacier, 60 miles south of Anchorage, my ice-climbing guide, Eli Potter, confirmed I was not just a scaredy-cat.
“I had to have a $30,000 knee operation” from snow-kiting, he told me.
Eli was a soft-spoken man, cautious — the way you’d want a mountain guide to be. He runs one of several companies I found on the Internet that take novices up for a day on the ice.
He led us through pines and around the detritus of an avalanche. To reach the base of the waterfall we were to climb, we had to ascend an icy slope riddled with small trees. Even with crampons on, I barely made it up without sliding down on my stomach. And I was supposed to climb up a wall of sheer ice?
While Tara and I rested at the base of the 120-foot seep, Eli climbed up to drill 6-inch screws into the ice on which to set ropes to catch him if he fell. He carried two hooked ice axes and used them as extensions of his hands, scampering up the blue ice the way a cat might ascend the drapes.
He made it look easy enough, but here’s the thing: In ice climbing, much more so than in rock climbing, the safety of your climb depends on daily conditions. Rock will continue to be whatever it is, but ice can change depending on sun, wind and temperature.
So when Eli was halfway up the face, I called out, “How’s the ice?”
“It’s like …” Eli paused mid-chop, “rotten tiramisu.”
The first face was gentle enough to still hold snow; this I scuttled up with relative ease. Then the slope steepened, and I came up against a wall of ice. It was humped and ribbed, frosted and translucent, like an ogre in a glass shower stall. I swung my ax into it. Surprisingly, the ice held.
I began to climb, kicking in my feet, scaling the frozen wall by force of muscle and steel. In one place, the ice became concave, as though caught inhaling. You might ask how ice that resembled crumbling cake could hold a man. Well, let’s just say some parts were soggy ladyfingers while others were good hard crust. The ladyfingers were what you wanted to avoid.
I felt myself beginning to tire, so I hung from my axes, my crampons still planted into the ice, and looked out toward the lake and mountains. Eli and my sister were 60 feet below. I skirted the sketchy ice and climbed to my right, soon arriving at the spot where Eli had placed the ice screw, and let out a misty breath. I had done it. I had climbed a frozen waterfall.
After resting a bit, I noticed a break in the clouds and decided to rappel down. This was one winter sport where sunshine is not welcome.
Next up biking — on the snow. Tara and I rented bikes from Arctic Cycles. What you notice are the fat tires, like motorcycle tires, kept at low pressure to increase their contact area with the snow. Then there are “poagies,” essentially handlebar sleeves to keep your fingers warm.
On the uphills on the trail in Anchorage’s Far North Bicentennial Park, we were lucky if we could walk the bikes without falling, never mind climbing hills on them. On the downhills, I had the distinct impression that if the trail turned too sharply I would die but that my obituary would at least make people laugh.
Bundled up and riding a bike with comically oversize wheels, I realized we were plodding along at roughly a brisk jogging pace. Once you figured out what you were doing, where was the thrill, the adrenaline rush?
My answer lay just ahead of us. We stopped short, nearly running into Tara. She was looking into the woods, her eyes wide.
“It was on the trail,” she said. “I almost hit it.” It was a moose, maybe 6 feet high, moving among the trees.
In Alaska, even a bike ride in the park can be extreme. We walked our bikes past the moose then mounted up and pedaled off, whooping, into the darkness.