The Chugach Mountain Festival 2003
Clinging to the coattails of winter.
By: Elijah Lee
The self-explanatory Chugach Mountain Festival went off with a bang this year. A festival that celebrates not just the Chugach, not just the mountains, but also a way of living that is, at the same time, romantic and Spartan. A lifestyle enjoyed by all who have ever raised their head to the morning sun and given thanks for the wildness that surrounds us. A lifestyle perfected by the hardy types that call Alaska home. This year the festival, which took place the final week of April 2003, included the Alaska Freeskiing Championships, Alaska Pipeline Raid, The Sloppy Cup Mountain Bike Race and the Chugach Mountain Film Festival.
Based just over the Thompson pass, some twenty-eight miles from the port city of Valdez, Alaska, the Chugach Mountain Festival popped tents at the legendary airstrip that introduced Valdez to the world of skiing. Gurus of helicopter skiing, Doug Coombs and Dean Cummings were among the first skiers to camp out in the parking lot. Waiting for the weather and trading their twenty-dollar chips for a ride in the ski plane up to the ice fields, where access to fifty degree, two thousand foot descents are only a boot-pack away. This parking lot spawned multiple heli-skiing companies; on any given sunny day in March the melodious din of A-Stars in flight can be heard echoing throughout the valleys of the Chugach. To everyone who has had the good fortune to go helicopter skiing, this sound realizes the fantasies of skiing and snowboarder enthusiasts the world over. Thigh-deep, untracked powder on beautiful, steep mountains. Like a piece of chocolate cake or a six hundred dollar bottle of wine, indulgences as sinfully delightful should only be partaken with much respect– I give thanks for this bite of chocolate cake.
Under clear skies and a heat wave that brought out the flip-flops and Safari hats, The Chugach Mountain Festival was winters' last hurrah for the majority of participants and spectators. Organizers Scott Mathews of XO Net Inc. and Jonathan Stanton of Starseed Media rolled out the red carpet, making sure that the hamburgers were always on and the keg was always tapped, not to mention the more technical duties. Alpine veterans from the Alyeska Ski Patrol kept everyone safe, on and off the hill. Canadian mountain legend Eric Pehota ensured the competitions conformed to strict.uh, Canadian mountain legend standards. It felt like a club social, a giant picnic.
The Alaska Pipeline Raid was the first competition. Raids, also known as a randonee rallies, have gained popularity only recently in the states but have been taking place in Europe for quite some time. For this particular rally, participants chose the fastest way to ascend roughly eighteen hundred vertical feet with the aid of climbing skins, touring bindings, sweat and tears. Four different checkpoints had to be located; at each stop participants answered a question (If one camped overnight and noticed his altimeter showed a gain in elevation the following morning, would a high or low pressure system be approaching?) or perform a task (Take this rope and build me a Prussick knot). For each correctly answered score, five minutes were deducted from one's overall time. After all the checkpoints were visited, participants descended to a field where two avalanche beacons had to be located before crossing the finish line. In the end, wisdom prevailed, as Andrew MacLean; Veteran Alpinist from the Wasatch Mountains of Utah correctly completed all the tasks and questions, which more than made up for the younger legs of some of the faster competitors.
The Alaska Freeskiing Championships was the next competition to take place. In this event skiers are given a mountain to ski, where and how they ski the mountain are up to the competitors' discretion. The judges score competitors on five different criteria. The most heavily weighted being the difficulty of line skied. After the line score is determined, the other four criteria, Aggression, Technique, Fluidity and Control are judged. In general, one cannot score higher than two points of your line score. This prevents competitors from skiing an easy line and winning.
On the first day of competition, there was not an easy line to be found. Held on the northern side of a run called Odyssey, competitors skied a fifty-degree slope of frozen "Death cookies". The exposure to rock and cliffs had all the spectators gripped with a sphincter-tightening, breath-catching fear of falling, not to mention the competitors! As one of the three judges for the competition (Those being: Head judge-Jeff Holden, secondary judges Mikey Kraynick and myself, Elijah Lee) I can attest to the pucker factor of the venue. I have been a part of better than twenty competitions; this is the most exposed, burly venue yet witnessed. To ski this run required not only huge amounts of self-confidence, but confidence in the ski edges beneath ones feet, and bomb-proof bindings. Much to the relief of all involved, the competitors skied relatively safe lines and escaped the day without any physical injuries. Although scores were not released that evening, after two runs on the first day it was general consensus that IFSA World Tour veteran Daisuke Sasaki and Girdwood local Jacob Young were neck and neck in the lead for the men. In the women's field it was a toss-up between Kelsey Vrem and Melanee Raney.
Day two was held at the top of Nick's Chute on a ridge known as the Berlin Wall. The Berlin Wall is short, north facing, steep, and held some great snow on it. Less fearsome than Odyssey, Berlin Wall allowed everyone to relax and enjoy the day. Daisuke started things out with a blistering, super-aggressive run, which floored everyone and brought up questions relating to sanity, or the lack thereof. Jacob skied a technical line, navigating the rock piles and maintaining his fluidity down the most difficult area. A telemark skier impressed everyone with his ability to ski without poles (I offered to lend him mine, but apparently he skis this way on purpose). With the balance of a mountain goat Tele-Dave Scanlan could do it all. He has this crazy style reminiscent of a snowboarder in hard boots. on telemark skis. Kelsey made the nicest turns of the whole competition. Arcing fast and strong, she clocked the quickest run of all the competitors. Melanee's run rivaled the best of either sex. Fearlessly she skied the most difficult line on the hill and proved that she is a force to be reckoned with, at any level.
After four runs held over two days, it was too close to call. Results were kept sealed until the final party that evening at the Tsaina Lodge. The bar was packed, the crowd was beautiful, the band was great and the atmosphere was electric. Head judge Jeff Holden took the mic, said a few words and announced the winners. Tele-Dave Scanlan, fourth, Abraham Gioffre, third, Jacob Young, second, and Daisuke Sasaki took the win. Melanee Raney won for the Women (and would have tied for third in the men's field), Kelsey Vrem, second. Salutations and congratulations were administered, prizes awarded, and the party continued. The northern lights outside kept time with the dancing feet, the dancing feet kept time with the band, the band kept playing until the last drop. And Time stood by. And flashing eyes will grin and wink knowingly, "Remember that night." All who attended will speak reverently of that night; of this I have no doubt.
Contributing writer Elijah Lee is a self-proclaimed yogurt junkie, competitive freeskier, and is happily sponsored by Leedom, Volkl, Leki, Granite Gear, Vortex and Swany. He looks forward to the 2004 Chugach Mountain Festival and the return of the World Freeskiing Championships (WFSC) tentatively scheduled for March 27th through April 4th.