Editor’s note: The world lost one of it’s brightest smiles on September 29th, 2014, when climber, skier, friend and effervescent fountain of stoke Liz Daley was caught in an avalanche while descending Cerro Vespignani in Chile. We’d just begun working with Liz, but as with most everyone that met her, she became dear to us immediately. We’re keeping this story from Liz on our blog because we believe her stoke burns on through her words and, more importantly, she’d have it no other way.
Story and photos by Liz Daley
For the past five years, I’ve been getting the whole ski bum thing dialed. My lifestyle consists of working my tush off for half the year in the States so I can afford to spend my winters in Chamonix. Towering, golden splitter granite, long, steep powder faces and couloirs, and cable car access to it all; this, and the inevitable lure of French pastries, call my name every time I leave. Given my addiction to Chamonix and all my cash being spent there, I’ve never had enough capital to explore different zones.
Take Alaska for instance. I figured I’d never make it there. Saving for Chamonix was hard enough and “AK” seemed so remote, so far away, so gnarly and just financially out of reach for me. However, the stories of bottomless, stable, steep powder lines on massive faces, enormous glaciers stretching for miles and enough undiscovered and un-ridden lines to keep you busy for a lifetime have always kept it on my mind.
Another compelling reason to visit AK was for the totally different experience. In Chamonix, you deal with the ever-present cluster of pushy, elbow-dropping internationals in the Aiguille du Midi cable car queue, the aggressive snake of people racing you up to a big line that’s finally in condition, and jerks that drop-in, right on your head, while on a if-you-fall-you-die line. In AK, there are no other humans in sight, you have it all to yourself and you get 16 hours of daylight to party. Whelp, this just sounded too good to be true and this spring I decided to reveal the mystery to myself and pop my Alaskan cherry!
Fellow Patagonia skier and my lil buddy, Caroline Gleich and I thought it would be awesome to explore Alaska together for the first time and we started planning the trip with videographer, Jason Thompson and photographer, Jay Beyer.
We flew in and landed on a col. Coming right from Chamonix I didn’t think the scale would surprise me but it really did. This place was massive. We were surrounded by every type of terrain you can imagine: steep spine lines, big faces, huge glacial gnar, long couloirs and the biggest crevasses I’ve ever seen. Even bigger glacier- and serac-capped volcanoes peeked out over the mountains in the foreground. You choose your own adventure out here.
We started building our base camp, where we planned to live for the next ten days. Jay was the only one of us who had been here before and I kept asking what the peak’s names were. “Most of these mountains don’t even have names,” was his reply.
It had been a pretty bad season in Alaska–super-low snow and a persistent weak layer that was extremely obvious. Being aware of this, and all the new snow we had gotten and continued to get during the trip, kept all of us on our toes. It was so cool to be dropped off somewhere you’re entirely unfamiliar with and trying to figure everything out: what the snowpack is like, on which aspects are we going to find the best snow, where does the sun come up and go down, what direction is the weather coming from and why, what do certain types of clouds mean… the list goes on. Everything is now-casting out here, and you’re constantly trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. We had a SAT phone for emergencies but, other than that, we had no connection to the outside world. Being completely self-reliant for all of this was probably one of my favorite parts of the experience out there.
We only had one storm day our entire trip and it dumped about a foot of snow with pretty heavy winds. We knew there were going to be avalanche hazard out there the next day. We woke at 3:30 am to ride northerly slopes with the best snow with sun lit pink light on them.
I spotted line from camp and from the bottom of the face. I knew exactly what I was going to do when I dropped in. Then, as I stood on top of my line a couple hours later, waiting for the sun to pop over the horizon, I scouted my route one last time. I tried to predict what was wind-loaded, looked for my islands of safety, spotted my big heel-side turn over a big cliff and could see my runout at the bottom. Then the sun started to blaze up over the horizon. I tried not to look directly at it so I wouldn’t see spots in my vision as I descended. I could feel my heart begin to race, knowing Jay would count me in at any second. “What if it slabs out on me? What if my ABS bag doesn’t work? What if I get taken off that cliff by my slough? What if the pilots can’t get in to rescue me?” All these thoughts rush through my head. I force them away, visualize my run and focus on riding the line as intelligently as I possibly can. Once the entire blood-red sphere is visible over the horizon I hear Jay give me the call, then I count myself in: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, DROPPING!
I drop in between two big cornices and ski cut the top half of the line. I see it cracking away right at my feet, I try to stay high and get up to a small spine, to avoid being swept away. I watch as a foot deep slab brings hundreds of pounds of fresh snow billowing down the slope, hopefully triggering other instability as it goes. I see my big flank below where I plan to make a massive turn, now I know for sure it’s loaded and I’m going to have to get out of there fast. I point my board down to the flank, make a powerful turn and as expected it cracked out, this time not at my feet but all around me. At this point, I’m close to the bottom and the runout is huge. I point my board straight downslope, hop a small bergschrund and out-run the slide, totally exhilarated and happy that my plan worked.
We continued with our early morning ritual for the rest of the trip. The snow really stabilized and we were able to explore the area and ride a ton of lines in really good snow. We ate amazing food, drank entirely too much whiskey and Irish cream and didn’t sleep enough, but we were free to do whatever we pleased, with not a soul in sight. Not only were the Tordrillo mountains some of the most spectacular mountains I’ve seen, it was such a great learning experience for me. I learned a lot about my own riding, hazard evaluation, risk management and now-casting in an unfamiliar zone. It was cool to put all my tools to the test in a place like this and really challenge myself. I’m happy that now I know Alaska is everything people say it is and I can’t wait to go back next spring. This girl is hooked!