Ski to the Sea : The First Expedition to Climb and Ski Down the Slopes of Montague Island in Alaska's Prince William Sound Brings the Adventurers in Touch with Steep Slopes and Awakening Bears

By gorman, stephen | The World and I, April 2002 | Go to article overview

Ski to the Sea : The First Expedition to Climb and Ski Down the Slopes of Montague Island in Alaska's Prince William Sound Brings the Adventurers in Touch with Steep Slopes and Awakening Bears


gorman, stephen, The World and I


We motor across the smooth glacial waters of Alaska's Prince William Sound, heading into Zaikof Bay at the eastern end of Montague Island, where the island splits like whale flukes. Ahead, an incisor-sharp peak rises, raking the sky. It is around 10:30 p.m., but this far north the mid-April sky holds an ethereal light, and the big mountain is awash in a rich purple cast. But what lures our eyes is the peak's immaculate west face, pitching sheer and clean straight down from the summit like a giant headwall.

As our two boats cruise quietly toward the head of the bay, the big engines rumbling softly, most of us gather up on the flying bridges for a better view. We're tracing potential ski lines down the face and pointing out approach routes when our chatter is suddenly interrupted by a loud whooshing sound. My friend Rich Rayhill points, then whispers, "Orcas!"

I turn and look. Suddenly the glossy surface a few yards away is slashed by a five-foot-high, black dagger of a dorsal fin, and then another and another. The black-and-white killer whales rise and sink, slicing through the silky water. There are perhaps thirty whales of all ages, from six-foot calves to thirty-foot patriarchs. Fully aware of us and curious, they approach the vessels as they feed and play for an hour or more. Then, as if at some signal, they turn east as one, swim off into the sound, and vanish.

It has been a day for whales. Earlier in the afternoon, after threading Upper Passage on Knight Island, we entered a realm of cetacean feeding and frolicking. At all points of the compass, we saw whales rising and sounding, their giant flukes standing out sharply against the snowy mountains beyond. For hours we drifted, watching the immense creatures breach and spout, the misty vapor of their exhalations hanging in the air.

Our expedition--the first to climb and ski one of Montague Island's many nameless peaks--originated several years ago. A fisherman had pulled his 42- foot trawler, the Alexandra, alongside my sea kayak during a long crossing in a remote part of the sound. My group and his crew were the only human beings in hundreds, if not thousands, of square miles, and when he offered a lift, I thought, Why not? He introduced himself as Brad von Wichman, and as we cruised we talked about sea kayaking, then somehow got on to skiing.

"If you love ski mountaineering, you should see this place in the spring," Brad said, urging me to return when the snowpack was measured in meters and the steep white slopes plunged straight into the cobalt sea.

Prince William Sound is renowned as a sea kayaker's utopia. This 15,000- square-mile arm of the Pacific Ocean, with its labyrinthine network of glacially carved fjords, is watched over by breathtaking mountains thrusting thousands of feet into the sky. The sound's 3,500-mile-long coastline reaches deep into the snowy recesses of the Chugach and Kenai Ranges. The skiing in these peaks is virtually unexplored: there are no roads here, and the sound is enormous--the size of my home state of New Hampshire. To access these mountains, you need a boat.

When Brad and I parted, I took a last look at the Alexandra and thought, "Hell, we could base ourselves aboard that boat and ski anywhere we wanted!"

Island destination

So here we are on a bright Alaskan wilderness morning, with not one boat but two. The Alexandra and Brad's 58-foot charter boat Babkin serve as our transportation and floating base camps in the wilderness. In addition we have two inflatable, motorized Zodiac skiffs for accessing the shore and eight sea kayaks for apres-ski paddling.

Banking the skiff in graceful arcs to avoid chunks of floating ice, Brad steers toward open water. As it cuts a furrow across the placid surface, I grab my ball cap with one hand and shade my eyes with the other.

Looking ahead, I study our destination for the day. …

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