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Eating and Skiing Wrangell St. Elias's Slotterhouse

Wednesday, September 7, 2016
Noah Howell joins Thomas Gaisbacher, Garrett Grove, Jonah Howell and Andrew McLean to ski tight chutes in the US's largest National Park.

Photo: Garret Grove

Flying deep into Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Thomas Gaisbacher, Garrett Grove, Jonah Howell, Andrew McLean and I entered the largest US National Park, bigger than Switzerland, Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks combined. And as we unloaded on the airstrip near Chitina, we couldn't decide what was more impressive, the amount of stuff we had or the fact that we fit it all, plus four guys, in the rental van.

Our pilot on the flight into the Wrangells, Paul Claus, said he'd never seen any group with as much food, alcohol and fuel. We flew in safely on the turbine otter plane and landed on a frozen lake at the base of what Andrew has dubbed the "Slotterhouse." He calls it this because the place is riddled with tight slots and chutes.

Once we had set up camp, it became painfully clear that we would need to eat our way out of the Wrangells. So, the following day, well-fed and excited to check out the terrain, we headed out into the clouds. It felt good to get the legs moving, but the clouds were thick, and the lack of trees made it tough to ski in the whiteout conditions.

The great thing about camping in Alaska is you're either skiing on good days or reading on weather days, both activities that you can never get enough of. We spent several days catching up on tent time and mellow angle pow while we waited for a big dump to settle, and just as when we started to feel more comfortable with the snow, skiing some larger faces and steeper pitches, the worst happened: Garrett and I were caught in an avalanche.

The temps had been on the rise, and as we skinned up a steeper headwall, the slope popped. The crown was about two feet deep, and it ran for 500 feet. Garrett and I were caught, but I was able to dig in, swim and was only flushed 40 feet downslope. Garrett was much further out in the meat of it, and he went for a 600-foot ride over 20 feet of cliffs. Luckily, he wasn't buried and was unharmed. We found all of his lost gear spread out in the debris, even his pair of white sunglasses. We tucked tail and retreated.

Our goals and desires were sluffed out with the avalanche. We rested. But the weather came in again, and we reset our heads, mentally starting the trip over. We skied and ate and dried out gear and read and dug our way through the snow and lake ice to the water below. Long but worthwhile approaches to each valley delivered steep, beautiful couloir skiing to our heart’s and leg’s content!

And on our final day we toured long and far up Valley 4, skied some smaller chutes and took in the scenery. Thomas and Andrew wrapped it up by skiing this massive three thousand foot line that we'd been staring at from camp. This trip really delivered all that we keep coming back here to experience (minus the avalanche).

—Noah Howell

For more on this story, read the Slotterhouse, Alaska Digital Catalog