July 12, 2011

My First Glacier Camp!

Have you ever imagined yourself being helicoptered up to a remote building full of beds and food, sitting on top of a glacier with the possibility of skiing on groomed trails in the middle of summer? I sure never did, but once I heard of the possibility, moving to Alaska didn't seem half as bad. I have spent much of the past two years with injuries all of which where caused by non-skiing activities. With this in mind, spending one week each month on snow, I thought I might stand a chance of training a lot without getting injured. This was enough to convince me to move to what I still view as the middle of nowhere, Alaska. I have just returned from my first week on the Glacier and I think it was worth the journey to Alaska.

Skiers have sought on snow summer training on the Eagle Glacier for many years now. The military, biathletes, and the US Ski team have all had part in the project over the past 30 years or so. APU was fortunate enough to take over in the more recent history and have spent many weeks each summer training hard and making various repairs to the place.

The Eagle Glacier sits high in the mountains above the town of Girdwood, home to Alyeska Resort and lies about 35 miles south of Anchorage. ()

The "lodge" that we stay in is more of a metal box as the winter weather is exceedingly harsh up there. This makes maintenance an endless task so there are always projects going on around the glacier led by our coach, wax tech, and various other helpers. However, it still provides a great hideout for training. There is a very adequate kitchen with two stoves, giant refrigerator, and huge pantry to make sure us hungry skiers are always well fed. Bunk rooms make up the sleeping arrangements and there is a living room to socialize and watch movies and a small space with a few weights to keep up on our strength training over the week. The goal of the week is always to ski as much as possible. For me, as a newbie, this meant trying to get 4 hours of skiing in a day.
The pond that we rely on for water supply

A typical day meant waking up at 6 to get skiing by 7 in hopes that the snow was a little firmer, skiing for 2-3 hours, eating, napping, skiing for a second time, doing some strength training, eating dinner, watching video to work on technique, and going to bed. There is not much else going on up there so it is a great way to focus solely on skiing. That said, we only spend a week at a time up there because not only is it exhausting to train that much, it is close quarters and we wouldn't want to destroy any team bonding that we have done over the week.

The groomed trail and a sunny day!

There is about a 7km loop to ski on that our wax tech grooms twice a day for us. The variable part of the camp is the weather. Weather in Alaska in unpredictable as is, then you throw in being on top of a mountain and things get interesting. I apparently lucked out as this week we had a few sunny days and a fews days in which we were in a cloud, but only one rain storm. The sunny days are to die for. The views are incredible and it is a surreal thing to be skiing in the middle of summer on top of a glacier, it never got old. Being in a cloud was interesting as well. It provided some distortion as I would loose track of where I was on the course and suddenly the hills seemed shorter and the track less monotonous, but the downhills became a little tricky as you couldn't see more than one foot in front of you. We had very warm weather which was nice for training, but meant that the snow never froze so the skiing was very mushy and challenging making for some extra tired legs.

Me and some of my new teammates

I had a successful camp, training the most I ever have in 1 week! My knee didn't cause me any trouble, only blisters got in my way as the snow is so wet it is hard to keep your feet dry! I spent a great deal of time working on technique as every coach as different ways of explaining things and different philosophies on the best ways ski. I feel like I have already become a better skier and am looking forward to the next camp.

The most exciting part was our exit. Most people hike off the glacier to save some money instead of taking the helicopter down. However, a group of us with nagging injuries were instructed to take the lift down. We were planning to leave this morning but a storm was predicted to move in so we were unsure of our departure time. We went out for our last training session yesterday when our coach came ripping down on the snowmobile to tell us that the helicopter would be arriving in 30 minutes. However, the storm had already hit as rain was falling and the wind was howling so we scrambled back up to the building to pack our things. Because the storm had moved in, the helicopter wasn't able to get to the building so our coach got a call saying it was landing down glacier. Every minute that the heli runs, gas is burning and so is our wallet so we scurried around in the storm loading a sled and attaching it to the snowmobile before piling on and heading into the fog. We were driving very fast looking for the heli and trying to avoid falling into a crevasse, it was nothing short of a great hollywood scene. I spotted the helicopter through the fog and our coach was able to get us loaded in. We took off and the wind was so strong we were bouncing all over the place. We had to take a longer route back to Girdwood to avoid flying over high peaks so we got a scenic trip, but I was shaking with nerves the whole way. We were flying so close to the ridges trying to stay protected from the wind and we certainly got our money's worth on this ride, however, I was very thankful to land safely on the air strip.
APU just bought a new Pisten Bully (grooming machine) for the glacier. Getting thing up there is tricky however. Getting the machine up there required it to be broken into pieces and the hiring of a special helicopter that could carry the pieces. It was an exciting day for all when the helicopter delivered the pieces. This is the cab being brought up one afternoon.

After spending a week surrounded by rock and snow, everything seemed very green in town and I keep catching myself forgetting to flush the toilet as we have to conserve water on the glacier we must follow the mantra "if it's pee, let it be, if it's poo flush it through." But it is very nice to have a few days of rest and recovery. We ran into a teammate grabbing some dinner who was not on the glacier who had been charged by a brown bear that day and after pulling into our driveway we were greeted by 2 moose, reminding me again of all my fears here and that Alaska is a wild place. Back to reality in Anchorage!

At the end of this week, the US Womens Team is arriving for a week of dryland training and then another week on the glacier. A few of my Dartmouth Teammates will be joining and I could not be more excited to have some friends coming to visit!

You can always click on any picture to enlarge it!