Finding Home in Alaska’s Backcountry

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Snow framed me on all sides as I stood in a clearing at Turnagain Pass in Chugach National Forest. Transfixed, I peered through my tiny microscope at the sharp, angled snowflakes on my glove. During that moment, the bonds of those ice crystals transported me into another world. Their intricacy reminded me of the lace doilies my grandma kept her morning coffee cup on. Each layer was a different texture and pattern; I had never seen snow like this.

When I finally lifted up my gaze, I couldn’t help but grin in awe of the 360-degree mountain view surrounding me. The fresh snow adorned everything in a brilliant white, as if sprayed with a celebratory holiday layer of whipped cream. I laughed to myself and thought, “You are way too excited about standing in a dug-out snow pit in the middle of nowhere.”

Backcountry skiing in Alaska

Photo Credit: Will Koeppen

I am not what comes to mind when you hear the words, “backcountry skier.” Although I grew up in Anchorage with the Alaskan wilderness in my backyard, I didn’t spend much time exploring it. Wilderness was something far away—someplace dirty and uncomfortable. My feet were more familiar running on artificial turf than walking over tundra. I reserved my backpack for carrying a half-dozen books, not a sleeping bag or avalanche beacon.

It wasn’t until I left Alaska in my late teens that I realized how incredibly special my childhood playground truly is. Upon returning to my hometown five years later, I began exploring its mountains and rivers, discovering an insatiable curiosity for the natural world. I wanted new experiences and challenges. I grew to understand what people were referring to when they talked about human-powered adventures, relying on their own bodies to climb a peak or traverse valleys.

Backcountry skiing in Alaska

Photo Credit: Will Koeppen

After taking an avalanche awareness course, I started backcountry skiing last winter. For the record, I am a terrible skier. But it doesn’t matter. I fell in love with it. Every time I have the opportunity to go out, I am rewarded with an intimate look into a place, a particular mountain and a unique snowpack.

It’s both mental and physical work. I have felt both at my strongest and at my weakest with my feet strapped into ski boots, pulling the heavy weight of the skis with every step up. Countless times I have wanted to quit and go back down. Yet, the support and encouragement of my backcountry partners keep me moving uphill, no matter how far the summit seems.

Adventures like these have allowed me to see Alaska from a new perspective. Until recently, Turnagain Pass was no more than a scenic marker on the highway between Anchorage and Seward. Today, it feels like home.

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