Skiing Mt. Augustine Volcano in Alaska has long been a dream of mine . . . and the adventure was all I hoped for and more! Ski mountaineering is always interesting, and doing so on a steamy active volcano in the middle of Cook Inlet just ups the game 🙂
So, I admittedly have a small
obsession with the Alaska Volcano Observatory webcams – situated to consistently provide info on weather and conditions for the prominent volcanoes across Cook Inlet from the Kenai peninsula, they keep me inspired. This year, when the stars aligned to take a boat trip out to the Augustine Volcano, I was more than stoked! I’ve been wanting to get out there forever – one of those mountains that I have had countless conversations on skin tracks about . . . so when Scott Dickerson of www.surfalaska.com
said we could get out there on the M/V Milo, living/cooking aboard and travelling at night to maximize ski days, I knew we had to make it happen.
Cue the hodge-podge group: Kathy and the Viking, Matt and Agnes Hage, Andy, Doug, Cody, me . . . many of us had never skied together, many had never met prior, we had varied levels of uphill/downhill experience . . . but sometimes those are the best groups – just random enough to ensure adventure!
Leaving on a Thursday night, we all slept as the Milo cruised west and awoke to stunning views of the volcano right at our fingertips . . . serene waters between it and us . . . game on!
Onshore we went – not having much beta beforehand, Mike the captain anchored at the location with the closest access to the mountain from shore. From below, there was no obvious route through the upper rime iced sections, but we chose what looked to have the best chance of going.
The climb was straightforward – skis transitioning to a stairway to heaven – and then we got into rime ice, fumaroles, snow bridged caves formed by the hot rocks melting the snow from below . . . I found myself exploring an alternate route up to the climber’s right that looked like a potential ski line and found myself navigating a series of precarious crossings, steam emanating from below them, with the distinct wonder of whether we should be there at all! Both Andy and I took routes that converged on a path to the caldera and then got shut down on going further by a steaming and unstable world around us. We had one more idea to try, gaining a nearby rock that looked to possibly connect to a higher zone of the caldera . . . but as Andy approached it, he fell in up to his shoulders – with that, we called it. We reasoned that for a volcano, reaching the caldera was accomplishment enough . . . no need to off ourselves to get the actual highest point J
After a brief snack and a few moments to soak in the view through the steam, it was time to ski! Of course, the rime ice that had surrounded our climb, and the contrived route up made for some interesting skiing! We picked our way through the top section and then started having fun on the rimed features as things started to open up and we got out of the fumarole zone – starting to relax as we got back on what seemed like stable ground. Like any good Alaskan volcano, however, Augustine had one up on us, and we had a brief scare as Matt was traversing over to setup for a photo, and fell in to his neck in a pretty darn unpredictable place . . . guess the hot rocks lasted further down that we thought! We definitely had a tense moment until we realized all was well, at which point the smiles/laughs/jokes started as Matt mountaineered his way out of the hole!
Back on track, it was ski fun back to the bottom . . . as Cody put it, the rime “skied like butter: really hard, crusty, chunky, frozen butter” . . . but these things don’t really seem to matter when the sky is blue, you’re surrounded by water, skiing a dream line with great people – mostly we just felt grateful to be there and loved the turns, whatever they were comprised of!
After the caldera run, Andy and I decided to go back up and ski the couloir we’d eyed earlier in the day – always believing “there’s no promise of tomorrow” it was too hard not to go up and explore a bit more. So, up we went – unfortunately, the clouds rolled in as we climbed and the sun became obscured, so we had some festive low light skiing in variable snow conditions in a super steep and narrow line – gotta love it! Gotta say it was pretty awesome to ski all the way to the water though, and in no time, we were on the beach looking back up at a lenticular on the summit and feeling thankful we’d eeked our day out of the weather!!!
As we cruised to our anchor spot for the night, with the hopes of being setup to ski a new aspect the following day, we saw multiple straightforward ski lines emerged and laughed at how we seemed to be on the most contrived spot possible . . . still, we were glad to have it that way – it was awesome to be in such a volcanic zone, hiking in the steaming world, slightly out of place and unsure – raw adventure!!
The next morning unfortunately dawned gray, but we could still see the summit (in and out), so we decided to see if we could eek out another ski . . . with 45 mph winds whipping across the inlet, white caps dotting the sea, and the ceiling obscuring the mainland we’d been able to see just a few hours before, we decided to turn back. Regardless, it was awesome just to be there in the weather – to feel the power of an incoming storm, to look down on the rough seas . . . and to be glad we had a warm boat to go back to!
Our third and final day was one for exploration on the mainland – after a rough crossing (that had most of us admitting defeat against the inlet!), we ended up in Iniskin Bay. Though raining, three of us motivated to get out and explore, but for me I was honestly motivated as much by getting on solid ground and prolonging subsequent exposure to the sea as I was by going skiing! Regardless of motivation, Erik, Cody and I booted up a super sweet couloir to the sea and found much better and more consolidated snow than we’d imagined from below – score!!! Soaked at the bottom, we were psyched to return back to a warm dinner and get horizontal before the final crossing.
Overall, this was an amazing trip – 3 days of exploring, super cool skiing, great people, and a wonderful adventure. Huge thanks to Scott/Stephanie and Mike for making it happen!!!