Skiing the Bomber Traverse: Part 1
I first learned about the Bomber Traverse while doing something that I often do: reading a guidebook while sitting on the toilet. Some time ago, I heard about The Alaska Factor
by Joe Stock, and I’d ordered it on impulse. Then, in January, in the depths of boards-study distress and desperate for something to look forward to, I was looking for an adventure idea. Taylor and I had a meeting. We nixed the plan we’d been talking about to travel to Japan; it was too soon and too much money. For once, I had no other ideas. Until I sat on The John.
Descending into Anchorage over the Chugach, building stoke.
The Bomber Traverse is a ski loop outside of Palmer, AK, in the Talkeetna mountains. It begins near the locally famed touring zone of Hatcher Pass and cuts a modest circle of 20-ish miles and 6000’ across two passes. It’s clearly possible to ski in a day (and it has been many times), but three huts situated around the loop make it equally well-suited to going heavy and skiing the surrounding terrain.
When I saw the stats and the photos in my moment of porcelain zen, I had two thoughts: “that looks awesome”, and “we are definitely capable of doing that”. Taylor and I gambled, buying our flights in February and praying that Joe Stock’s predictions about the good weather and snow of the spring season would bear fruit. We also hedged by booking an Airbnb in Palmer for the week. We didn’t have any alternative plans, and with Turnagain Arm and other options a bit far away, we’d probably have to hike and fish if it didn’t pan out.
Taylor, making the long march up the Little Susitna.
There it is, the head of valley! It’s just miles from here.
Taylor had a lot of fair questions about Alaska; “Are there bears?”; “Do we need bear spray?”; “Wouldn’t a gun be better?” (No, no, and no). It was fair because Alaska is big, it’s remote, and everything that makes it awesome also makes it a bit intimidating. We just plain don’t have mountains that look like theirs down in the lower 48. It’s what the Canadians and the Euros call ‘complex terrain’.
You can find our MountainLessons route beta and an annotated map of the area HERE. It’s not a standalone guide, but will supplement what you’ll find in Joe Stock’s book, which is worth your money whether you want to ski in Alaska or not. Enjoy!
Confirming the route and enjoying some ice-cold streamwater.
Round trip flights were cheap ($350), the drive to Palmer is short (1 hour), and next thing we knew it we were packing our gear on a lawn under towering Matanuska peak. We had paid our dues to the Alaska Mountaineering Club, which operates two of the huts, and the forecast was good. Finding that lightweight gear and no tent made for a lighter pack, I loaded myself down with a flask of whiskey and a six pack of beer. We were ready.
You are here.
The first day of the typical route and itinerary begins at the Goldmint Trailhead and travels nearly flat terrain for seven to eight miles before climbing 1500’ in a final mile to the epically nestled Mint Hut. With the heaviest pack’s we’d carry for the trip, we set off around 8 am under the curious scrutiny of a boyscout troupe camped in the parking lot.
Though the snowpack was hardly deep at the oddly low altitude of 2000’, a strong refreeze made for relatively quick travel up the valley. The scenery was stunning, as was our poor adaptation to carrying heavy packs. I can’t remember the last time that I carried more than 20 lbs in a pack. It was foreign, but it felt good. Man weight.
Taylor skis down to the tiny, hidden Mint Hut.
We had a few adventures along the way. While stopping five miles in to drink and snack near the open Little Susitna creek, Taylor dropped her pack and collapsed the snowpack with a startlingly loud whoomph. After scanning frantically about to make sure we hadn’t collapsed a mountainside above us, we realized that we were on a bench of snow that was undermined by creek braids and was deeply faceted. The cracks from the collapse ran half a kilometer up valley, a good reminder of the continental-type snowpack of the Talkeetnas and the crazy/dangerous spacial variability that such snow can have.
We stand tall next to short huts.
Travel up a short, boulder-filled, and isothermal slope that those clearly lacking in creativity call ‘heartbreak hill’ brought us to below Tenemint peak and Backdoor Gap, the pass that we planned to cross the next day.
It seemed like a good place for a hut, but there was none to be found. I pulled out Taylor’s old GPS, preloaded with hut coordinates. Whether it was my beacon or GoPro or the deep elfin magic of the hills, the damn thing couldn’t give me a bearing to save it’s life, swinging it’s little arrow about wildly. Still, I trusted it’s judgment that the hut was just 0.1 miles away. Intuition led us towards a small frozen lake and I soon spotted the nearly buried hut.
Cliff notes: synthetic insulation, not rum.
Huts are new to us. It’s a hell of a thing to be inside, and to eat your tuna helper while perusing hut paraphernalia (literally, glasswork) and reading the absurd library in archive there. And such a tiny place, maybe ten by thirty by fifteen feet, is buried by the winter’s snowpack and is so dwarfed by mountains uncommon to an Oregonian’s experience. This is big country.
I made some turns that evening scouting the route up the pass. They were South facing and a bit crunchy, but in the shade the snow was almost powdery. There was hope, and I was skiing in Alaska. ✓. On my return we drank the first of the beers and passed out, satisfied.
Leaving the Mint Hut in the morning sun.
Taylor switches to crampons halfway up Backdoor Gap. The hut is a tiny black spec just above the right edge of her helmet, at the edge of the valley.
An oatmeal morning fueled by instant coffee had us heading up Backdoor gap around eight in the morning, climbing into the sun that hits the face hours before it reaches the hut. Skins let to ski crampons led to boot crampons and we made hasty work of the pass as the sunny heat started to soften the snow on the rocky slabs around us.
Reaching the pass by way of Ueli-Stecking quickly across a small, spooky-feeling piece of snow, I was reminded that this ain’t the Wasatch sweetheart. The relative remoteness and the loneliness of such a big range will quickly amplify any doubts that one has about one’s decision-making. Though the loop is largely safe, it was clear that to be conservative was the only wise choice out here.
Looking back over the Mint Glacier, with stunning weather welcoming us to the range.
Taylor smiles as she approaches the top of Backdoor Gap.
At the pass, Alaska unfolded down the Pennyroyal glacier below. Under blue skies, Denali and Foraker glowed pink in the distance and peaks reached in all directions. To our astonishment, the shade of the Northerly slope down the glacier sheltered several inches of recrystallized powder snow. We were saved from the prospect of horrible skiing under heavy loads and endowed with optimism about the quality of the trip’s skiing.
Mint Glacier to the right, basking in the sun, and the Pennyroyal glacier to the left, sheltering powder in its shade.
Shade and powder stretch down the Pennyroyal glacier, with Denali and Foraker glowing massively in the distance.
Taylor peeks into the Pennyroyal, and we realize that we’ve got some awesome snow ahead of us.
After snapping some photos, we skied down the glacier to the valley (a remnant glacier, safely devoid of crevasses) and contoured our way to the downright Icelandic-appearing Bomber hut. Here, the real skiing would begin.
Look out for Part 2, coming soon!