When APU student Killian Sump rounded the bend to Aialik Bay in Kenai fjords National Park, he knew just what awaited.
Towering peaks of the Kenai Mountains. Humpback whales and tidewater glaciers. Newly emerging rainforest and the largest icefield entirely within U.S. borders.
But all that snow? in June?
I was ecstatic. The banks of the sea were stacked with three to four feet of corn snow and the mountains were filled in, white against the blue sky, with clear lines up peaks that I had previously never imagined climbing because of loose slate. Standing on the bow deck of a water taxi out of Seward, I was returning to Aialik Bay for the third summer in a row to work as a sea kayaking guide. My job at the lodge started the next day. But all that was on my mind was when I’d have weather and time to get out into the mountains.
Kenai fiords is a wet place, characterized by shrouds of mist and constant light rainfall that averages about 50 inches in summer alone. I was praying for high pressure.
June 21. Lodge manager Geoff Jans and I had our kayaks loaded with climbing and ski gear and ready on an Aialik cobblestone beach. We said our good-byes to friends and family who’d been celebrating solstice around a campfire in the tidal flats. It was 1:30 a.m., and Geoff and I had just awakened from an evening nap, preparing for our mission by resting and opting out of group festivities. The weather was perfect—not a cloud in the sky, not even a breeze as we stared at our destination peak on the bay’s western flank. We called the mountain Poseidon, for the Greek sea god.
We pushed off the shore and started paddling up the fiord, gliding through glassy water in the early morning light. Geoff and I had been looking up at that mountain for years; it was hard to believe that today we would attempt the summit.
We paddled toward the peak and a small, bouldery beach about five miles in the distance. We had chosen the tallest mountain on the Aialik Peninsula: At 3,768 feet, the peak we called Poseidon towered over the rest. Its massive buttress builds up to a large glacial bowl; one steep and long couloir rises to the upper face of the peak, which sits just below the corniced summit fin. It’s an elegant peak, one that we hoped to climb and ski in its entirety in one long day trip. An hour and a half later, we landed our kayaks on the beach and started unloading gear.
A calm morning paddle is the perfect meditative way to prepare for a day in the mountains. Aialik Glacier rumbled behind us as we set our boats a little way into the brush and skinned through leafless alders and devil’s club, quickly getting above timberline.
As we moved into the alpine and toward the main saddle, Geoff yelled. “There are iceworms everywhere! This is insane!” Sure enough, we found ourselves faced with a peculiar phenomenon: Everywhere we looked, thousands of the tiny black worms crawled and squirmed on the snow. We cruised along infested snow for a few hundred meters, and the worms dissipated as the slope steepened. Geoff and I worked our way to the top of the first saddle where wildflowers greeted us. We rested for a few minutes and took in the view of the bay. Mount Addison—the massive peak above Pedersen Lagoon that acts as a border for the Harding Icefield—and the wide face of Aialik Glacier were painted pink-orange in the morning glow, reflected completely on the still surface of the fiord.
The air was calm. All was quiet. Geoff and I exchanged looks of awe before turning to observe what lay ahead: We would climb Poseidon’s north ridge from the saddle, a steep rocky ridge laden with early summer wildflowers and grasses, and then descend into the backside bowl at the base of the main couloir.
Before attaching crampons to our boots, we stared up into the steep, long couloirs. I pulled my ice axe and helmet off my pack, grinning at the thought of skiing the line. We booted up the couloirs, step by step, with Geoff leading. After moving for five minutes, it seemed as if we’d gone nowhere—that’s when the vastness of the mountain really set in. As the climb got steeper, we quickly gained elevation. Entrenched runnels of snow in the middle of the doublefall-line ramp were evidence of many days of melt and small, wet slides.
Rocks littered the snow alongside cliff walls—a summertime, weathered-out pack of rotten corn snow. But our plan was working: We aimed to climb the whole peak while still in the shade of morning, and after an hour we were two-thirds of the way up, peering out toward open ocean to the south. Like a thick, white blanket, lowlying fog swept in from the Gulf of Alaska and began to cover the water, shores and forests. Geoff and I moved in rhythm, the sounds of our boots kicking steps and the sliding and punching of our ice axes creating a sort of alpine music.
The great thing about ski mountaineering is the whole way up, you’re inspecting the ski route down, imagining the descent and constantly scouting the best places to arc your turns and make the most of the terrain—a long contemplation before flying down the mountain in moments of bliss, like gravity-fed soul food.
We finally reached the top of the couloir to find ourselves on a knife-edge snow ridge and facing another snow-filled chute of equal proportions on the opposite aspect; it dropped all the way to the Lechner Glacier valley to the north. Resting on our implanted axes, we munched some food and drank some water, remarking about the couloirs and how close the summit appeared to be. We’d be walking a knife-edge ridge, climbing a steep face, and then climbing a final steep snow ridge to the base of the summit cornice.
I led down the knife-edge, stepping gingerly but firmly—a catwalk between the two 2,000-foot couloirs. After ascending the upper face, we climbed the final and steepest ascent of the route, a 60-degree ridge that was manageable with an ice axe and ski pole with the basket removed.
“How’s the cornice look?” Geoff yelled from below. I was halfway up the ridge. “Looks like we’ll be able to just pull right over it,” I replied, not realizing the actual distance I still was from it. When I reached the top of the ridge at the cornice, I found it to be about 10 feet tall with a small notch at the base. We worked our way along the base of the cornice to the north, eventually wrapping around to the north end of the peak and finding a spot were the cornice was minimal.
I plunged my tools and boots into the snow a few more times before pulling over and onto the summit fin, into the bright morning sunshine. The snow on the summit sparkled in the sun, perfectly arcing up to the high point. There was no breeze at all, just stillness as I looked around. Bear Lagoon was directly below to the east, a massive pool of blue glacial and tidal water punctuated by icebergs that appeared tiny from our vantage. To the south, the mountain peaks of the Aialik Peninsula grew lower and lower until they dropped off into the endless ocean, now a sea of low clouds that engulfed portions of the Chiswell Islands and the islands south of Resurrection Bay.
To the west was the Harding Icefield, a 750-square-mile expanse of ice and rocky peaks exposed to the air after thousands of years of being sculpted by ice. Geoff and I stayed on the summit for about an hour, reveling in our joy and taking in the purity of the moment on a peak we weren’t even sure anyone had ever set foot on before.
It was time to ski. My brother, Riley, had given us the radio call from Pederson Bight to let us know that sun was hitting the fall line. I was a little nervous as I clipped into my skis, running the line though my head, trying to keep my focus instead of thinking about the consequences. Geoff and I were both amped: A few shuffles and a shift of the weight and we were off, traversing underneath the cornice and holding our edges as we made our way to the steep snow ridge that led to our sunny and epic line—the steep upper face, down to the huge couloirs, and all way down to the lower south bowl.
Geoff and I exchanged a few words. We decided to send the entire line individually in one run. With an optimistic, “See ya at the bottom!” Geoff hopped into his first turn….
Read more from Killian on his blog at: http://killiansump.blogspot.com
Story and photos by Killian Sump — This article originally appeared in the APU Summit Magazine, Summer 2013.