Summer skiing in Alaska – to the end of time

man stands on snow, holding skis, against a wall of snow as tall as him

Tim Lydon navigates a wobbly pile of scree, bound for some high-elevation Alaskan snowfields as his year-round Alaskan summer skiing adventure nears its 100th month

There are plenty of reasons not to ski in summer. Here in Alaska they include ample opportunities for hiking, biking, boating or just enjoying some day-beers in the driveway. Any of it beats lugging skis up into the alpine for a few teeth-chattering turns. Yet here I am, in July, sweating under the weight of my skis as I navigate a wobbly pile of scree, bound for some high-elevation snowfields. I’m headed into a place I call the Glacier House, a north-facing pocket in the Chugach Mountains, where sturdy rock walls rise to block the sun.

The ceiling is a narrow slice of sky, and the floor a slanted slab of ancient ice, which I’ve watched shrink for years. Today, that angled floor still sports a plush carpet of last winter’s snow. It’s no blower pow, but the top layer is soft. It’ll make for some decent turns, if I don’t wrench an ankle among these boulders first…

At the toe of the glacier, I begin kick-stepping upward. Bits of snow splash up from my boots. Half way up I drink from a vein of clear water coursing through the snow. It reveals a base of blue ice just 18 inches down. If I come back in August, that thin snow may be melted away, leaving the ice bare and unskiable.

Solastalgia is the term for the mourning we feel when our natural environment undergoes rapid change

Every year the pattern of melting is different, but the trend towards less snow is constant. The snow is deeper at the top of the glacier, where it’s piled against a serrated ridge top. I nestle my pack in the snow, pull on a jacket and pants against the wind, then scramble to a gravelly gap in the ridge.

Straight down, maybe a 500ft fall, is another glacier. With more sun exposure, less than half its surface still holds snow. The rest is naked blue ice littered with dark rocks, each pumping the afternoon’s solar heat into the ice. Months of melting lie ahead for it.

a serene sound, shored up by forest and, behind, tall mountains with snowy tops
Alaska mountains and Prince William Sound

Further south I see my little town, green with leaves and lawns. My friends and family are down there, gardening, riding bikes – all proper summer things to do.

I ease back down to my pack and snarf a sandwich while pulling on ski boots, then step into my skis and pivot downhill, giving myself to gravity.

For a few minutes, everything disappears except me and the surface of this snow-covered glacier. Both of us are waning, but right now we’re still here, doing our thing.

a ski tourer heads up on steep sloping, pocked snow that is sun affected, a sound of water far below, as they summer ski in Alaska

At the bottom, I pop off skis, walk across a plateau of recently de-glaciated scree, then ski a steeper gully wedged full of last winter’s avalanches. Where the snow disintegrates among boulders, 1,300 vertical feet below my lunch spot, I stow my boots, strap skis to pack, and begin hiking back to town. It marks my 84th consecutive month skiing. (Fall Line caught up with Tim this time last year, who this summer looks set to hit his 100th month…).

  • Have you skied in summer before? Take a look at this extensive guide on where you can summer ski – click here

Solastalgia and an inner ski bum

Skiing every month for seven years was not my plan. Back when I started, I was just a new dad looking to stay active.

One August day, rebelling against the sedentary nature of early parenthood, I decided to ski at least once each month for the next year. On a practical level, I hoped the exercise would burn off some of the new-dad dough I was packing. I also hoped it would pacify my inner ski bum, who was still pouty over the whole having-a-baby thing.

But another motivation was ‘the blob’, an unprecedented marine heat wave that boiled up in the North Pacific that year. It led to the deaths of hundreds of whales, the collapse of the northern Gulf of Alaska cod fishery, and the wasting away of millions of sea stars from California to Alaska. Huge numbers of sea birds starved to death, too, including 6,000 murres that washed up on a beach not far from home. That long pile of dead birds was the only sign of white on the beach that winter. South-central Alaska usually boasts deep winter snow to sea level, but that year it was nearly all rain.

At the local ski area, we eked out a season on high-elevation terrain. But down in the valley I cradled my daughter on doleful walks through a hauntingly brown landscape. I whispered into the top of her head about the missing snow – how it offers a lifetime of adventure.

Solastalgia is the term for the mourning we feel when our natural environment undergoes rapid change. It’s a kind of trauma. And it’s what I felt when the rug of snow was pulled out from under me that winter.

Added to that, I was in my mid-forties, and suddenly aware that the option to ski a lap around the calendar was narrowing. In this way, taking up summer skiing emerged from the three-way pile-up of parenthood, climate change and ‘middle’ age.

But I’d always been curious about year-round skiing. I’d watched others pursue it in various Western and Alaskan locales and had enjoyed my own occasional summertime jaunt. They included corn skiing above Lake Tahoe, California, one June, carving through slush on Oregon’s Mount Hood one July, and sunshiny runs down Fourth ofJuly Bowl in Summit County, Colorado. There were forays on Alaska’s deep maritime snowfields, too. I had just never tied it all together in one year.

So that August, with dead birds still washing on to our beaches and a grim tide of back fat rising on my own ageing body, I headed into the mountains to make some turns.

the pocked surface of  snow (from strong sun) is photographed with the silhouette of a single person summer skiing in Alaska

Laughably bad, deliriously awesome

I’m seven years in now, and this adventure has been more fun than I expected.

Chasing after the glint of distant snowfields has drawn me to local mountains I never would have visited. It’s taken me to familiar summits, too, but at new times of year. In these ways, summer skiing got me to probe deeper into my landscape.

I’ve had easy strolls and craggy climbs, got caught in the rain, and skied runs that were either laughably bad or deliriously awesome. I’ve surprised bears, found bits of unlucky goats spread across avalanche debris, and waited patiently with my skis amid alpine ferns as a mama moose and calf chomped willows, blocking access to a snowy bowl behind them.

I’ve enjoyed fun seasonal mash-ups, too, like picking a dinner’s worth of fresh fiddleheads alongside a slope I had just skied. Or a twilit June night sleeping tent-less atop a snow-covered peak so I could ski 2,500 vertical feet before breakfast, down to wildflowers blooming by the sea and fresh shrimp waiting in our shrimp pots.

man with skis on pack hugs young daughter as they stand on the mountain in deep, fresh snow, a sound of water below them

In the early days, my wife occasionally carried our infant daughter halfway up a mountain to wish me well. Now, each summer solstice we three venture to mellow snowfields above town for some family skiing. However, watching my daughter grow is not the only change I’ve seen. The mountains are transforming, too, and witnessing that fuels my desire to keep at this. Because, as it turns out, regular summer visits to glaciers and snowfields provides a glimpse into how climate change is altering the world’s mountains.

I don’t know where all this ends, for me or summer’s snow

I see it in June, when alders once buried in snow at this time of year are now leafing out, signalling a lengthening growing season that has trees steadily marching uphill. As they darken the alpine landscape, everything changes, including snowmelt, streamflow, habitat, and the phenology of plants and insects.

Hiking in mid-summer, I breathe the acrid smoke of intensifying wildfires, which send soot up onto snowfields, further accelerating their melting. In late summer, I see that our glaciers are shrinking deeper.

Happily, late September still brings fresh snow to the glaciers. It clears lingering smoke, piles into newly formed crevasses, and buries the heat-sucking boulders on the ice’s surface. Cooler weather thins meltwater to a trickle and traces its edges with delicate ice. Wind strips away leaves, readying the earth for snow. It eases my mind. And now I can enjoy hiking shorter distances and skiing longer lines.

I don’t know where all this ends, for me or summer’s snow. Age will gradually make it harder for me to reach summertime snow, and warming will continue driving it into ever higher terrain. But, for now, I’ll keep visiting these spaces to watch the global drama unfold. And if I’m headed that way, I might as well pack along skis.