Seward skiers aim high

Posted: Friday, January 04, 2002

ANCHORAGE -- Winter still had the higher elevations of the Kenai Mountains locked in its grip in June when Jerry Dixon got the call reporting fresh ski tracks cutting down 5,265-foot Mount Alice near Seward.

Harold Faust and George Peck had tracked Dixon down on his cellphone. They couldn't wait to give him the news.

Alice is a forbidding peak, one the three skiers had spent years scheming how to get up and ski down. They knew the news would get Dixon's goat.

Dixon couldn't believe it.

''I thought maybe a couple of 20-year-olds had gotten off the boat and poached it,'' he said.

The tracks signaled a new chapter for backcountry skiing in the Seward area. Dixon and a small cadre of locals, including Faust and Peck, were no longer exploring the nearby mountains on skis by themselves.

The Seward area has a bounty of peaks topping 4,000 feet, and many appear as steep, snowy and enticing to skiers and snowboarders as any around the state. Routes into and down these mountains, however, are jealously guarded.

It's hard to get locals to talk about their feats; they fear an invasion of outsiders. They have relented in part because they know the access to their favorite areas is pretty tough. Some local knowledge is almost a must.

To the best of their recollections, the earliest backcountry skier was probably Seward's former fire chief, Oscar Watsjold, who is now in his mid-80s.

Watsjold remembers skiing down a 3,022-foot hump, now known as Race Point, on Mount Marathon in 1934.

''It took an hour and a half to get up it and about five or six minutes to come down,'' Watsjold recalled. ''I hadn't heard of anyone else doing it. Other people tried to ski it after I did.''

These days, tracks appear pretty regularly on the mountainside.

Watsjold and others organized a local ski club in 1938 and with the support of the U.S. Forest Service built a small ski area at Mile 12 of the Seward Highway that included a rope tow and ski jump. As World War II heated up, the military added to their ski area. The locals put in a rope tow and built the cabin at Manitoba Mountain, about 50 miles north of Seward.

Faust recalls that he, Peck, Fred Moore and Dan Murphy skied the 4,300-foot Tiehacker in 1976.

''We did it in July,'' Faust said. ''In late summer it has ice crevasses.''

Other more remote peaks went unskied for years.

What kept everyone away? Seemingly impossible access coupled with unpredictable weather. Not the kind of skiing expected to draw vacationers.

''We've got bugaboo weather,'' said Peck, the local magistrate and a backcountry adventurer. ''It's carpe meteorological.' You have got to be ready to seize the weather.''

When Dixon, now 52, arrived in Seward from a Bush teaching job in the early 1990s, he slowly began to discover the handful of similarly aged skiers bushwhacking routes into some high peaks to ski them.

Over the years, Dixon, a teacher of gifted students at Seward-area elementary schools, tracked down who had skied what.

On the list, he joined or was joined by Faust; Peck, an accomplished backcountry unicyclist; Mike Tetreau, a National Park Service glacier expert; Bob Barnwell, a local teacher who recently moved to Venezuela; Charlie Crangle, another area school teacher; and Pete Harris, who now lives in Colorado.

Dixon also began to note what appeared to be first descents, some by free-heel skiers on Nordic gear who came telemarking down summits, others by randonee skiers, like himself, who use bindings and skis similar to those used by Alpine skiers.

Mount Alice was a draw early on.

In 1999, Dixon and others managed to climb to the mountain's 4,000-foot level, but were turned back by 60 mph winds. Still, Dixon got the opportunity to slap on the skis and drop to 700 feet on the Godwin Glacier.

Skiing on the spring snow was, he said, ''fabulous.''

The possibility for such skiing as unpredictable as it might be is what drew others as well.

Harris bagged the east ridge of 4,718-foot Mount Marathon and 5,710-foot Mount Ascension in 1989 before breaking his back a few years later while skiing on Mount Alice during a storm, Dixon said. Harris was out of commission for a time but recovered.

In 1999 -- after four tries over nine years -- Dixon found a route up Mount Eva, part of the Mount Alice massif. He and Tetreau then followed a narrow ridge, only 15 feet wide in places, to their jump-off zone.

The ridge, Dixon noted, fell almost straight down for 1,000 feet on either side.

''The exposure was exhilarating and reminded me of flying parachutes over Alaska as a smoke jumper,'' Dixon said.

A onetime smoke jumper, a veteran of the punishing Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic cross-country race, a wilderness wanderer and a skier, Dixon is undeniably a thrill junkie.

This past summer, Dixon and Barnwell fought their way through a thicket of trees and alders to reach the 4,003-foot summit of Mount Bear. A knife-edged ridge at 3,000 feet, however, convinced them to start skiing.

''One of the thrills, besides not knowing if someone has skied (the mountain) before, is seeing the fjord where we live from an entirely different perspective,'' Dixon said.

Peck tells of one group that kayaked three or four miles out of Seward to make a run at 3,657-foot Mount Calisto, which had been skied by others. Doug Olson strapped skis onto his kayak for that trip.

''It's basically you go up a steep couloir to 2,000 feet, walk horizontally for two miles then up another 1,000 feet,'' Peck said describing their ascent. ''That's a lot of hiking up for a such a short ski.''

''If you really want to ski, you should probably go to Alyeska'' Resort in Girdwood, he added. A big part of every Seward outing is spent getting to the foot of the area's high peaks.

The skiers in Dixon's circle of friends have stories of tough approaches, followed by ski runs down steep slopes in iffy conditions.

This probably explains why they have this sport pretty much to themselves.

Peck thinks that might be changing now because of technological advances.

''The equipment has gotten better,'' he said. ''So the people who are skiing are better. Before, if the wax didn't work, you would basically trudge along for a mile or so. Now if you don't go 10 or 15 miles on a trip, you feel like a bum. The bar has been raised.''

Six months after seeing those fresh tracks on Alice, Dixon followed them, by word of mouth, back to Jay Patterson, a Seward snowboarder, and Olson, a local telemark skier.

Dixon has also learned that a particularly daring local high school athlete and snowboarder has been making tracks into the remote terrain.

''These guys are going to start pushing the envelope,'' Dixon said. ''There's a new breed of skier and boarder in town.''

Mount Alice is a prominent mountain for those living in Seward. ''You look at it every day,'' said Olson, a 42-year-old carpenter who moved to Seward only two years ago from Colorado, where he manufactured ski boards. He said he first skied Alice in 1999.

''I don't care what's been skied, that's not my goal,'' he said. ''It's just fun and the glory of knowing you've been there.''

One reason local boarders and skiers can attempt the area peaks is that they're able to study conditions by watching the snow as it falls, layers and releases as snowslides.

''You know when conditions are just right,'' he said. Visitors to the area don't have that sort of access to what can be lifesaving information.

''That's why it is good to ski on your home turf,'' Olson added.

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