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How to ski at 20-below in Alaska

Doug O'Harra
Doug O'Harra photo

You can worm into layers of fleece and polypro and crackly shells. You can twist your head into a mummyesque system of overlapping buffs and muffs, while insulating feet within lined boots and covers. You can don bulging mittens almost too thick to grip ski poles, leaving you with the mute, flippered dexterity of a beached seal. 

You can ignore the numbing ache in your fingertips. You can disdain the burn of an exposed cheek. You can discount the pain centered on the tip of your nose. 

But when your eyelids finally begin to freeze shut -- owing to the frost from your breath accumulating over your face -- then you might finally give in and ask the question: 

Is 20 below zero too cold to go skiing? 

Of course it's not, I told myself just before dawn on Wednesday.

I will keep going, I thought as I dug bits of ice from my left eye with my thumb. I will. I will.

I was plodding west along a ski trail into Anchorage's hell-hole cold sink about 10:30 a.m., deep into the Campbell Creek bottomland that always congeals the zingiest temperatures of the winter within the urban bowl. A nearby science-education center was registering 20 or 21 degrees below zero about that time, but I was a bit closer to the frozen waterway, where temperatures might be a few degrees lower, maybe 23 below.

No other skiers were about. No movement interrupted the forest. Frost clung to every bare twig of birch and alder like fur. Not a breath of wind stirred. The sky glimmered pale blue, while the sunrise backlit the front of the Chugach Mountains like something had exploded just over the horizon. By my calculation, the sun was almost an hour late from its scheduled appearance published in almanacs, blocked and defeated by Chugach geography.

For such a dim motionless scene, it was noisy — incredibly so. The skis scraped the snow with a perpetual sandpaper hiss. Each plant of the ski pole creaked, as squeaky as a wagon trundled together with leather and bailing wire. The woosh of Anchorage city traffic surrounded me with disconcerting clarity, as though I were a few dozen yards from the closest highway instead of a mile.

I was being watched, too. Ravens were calling around me with a weird melodic klook-klook, but I couldn't see them. Some unknown bird made a two-toned drumming. I stopped and listened. Was it a woodpecker? I don't know my birds well enough to tell. It came again, then again. In between the bird calls, I could hear the burble and tinkle of the creek, unseen beneath drifts and ice.

Got to keep moving, I thought. Too cold to listen to the birds for long.

I had come into the park partly out of frustration. The previous night, I had turned back from a workout ski on a trail near a high school after my lips, nose and cheeks started burning with the sensation of pending frostbite. I like to ski at night, after work, when my kids go to various practices and the city's lighted trail system can be empty. Although no worse than 14 below zero, I got too chilled to finish the loop.

I returned to the car, started the engine and sat with numb hands in my pants and snot running down my face like I was some sandal-wearing beach chump from California. Winter had won the skirmish, but I wasn't going to surrender and stay indoors for long.

After weeks where dramatic North Pacific cyclones walloped southern Alaska with colossal dumps of snow -- Anchorage has officially recorded 89 inches through Jan. 13, while Valdez has seen more than 26 feet -- the regional weather pattern morphed and turned mean. It clamped down over Alaska with a high pressure regime that resembles the old Greek letter Omega when drawn on surface maps. This "Omega Block" has squeezed the mainland with a dry and bitter freeze.  

Up north in those Interior river valleys, this cold snap got serious. Places like Fort Yukon and Eagle and Manley Hot Springs saw dips into the 50s below zero over the weekend. Fairbanks, no slouch in the frigid weather department, officially experienced 12 days in a row at 40 below or worse, the longest sequence since 1989.

An old-timer who operated a weather station north of the Brooks Range once told me that there's a digit somewhere between 40 and 50 below zero that marks the frontier where civilized life begins to shred. Dip even a little ways below that, and generators and combustion engines tend to bust. Belts grow brittle. Tires flatten. People stop bathing, or making small talk. Sanity fades with the light, and the air goes liquid and bitter on the tongue. Below that line, one blunder with bare hands can lead to frostbite or worse. Below that line, you can die due to mishaps. Better pay attention to small things.

That means many Interior Alaskans spent the weekend hunkered in survival mode, with us southern Alaskans basking in relative warmth only 40 or 50 degrees below freezing. From the perspective of someone burning a cord of wood each week while feeding a cabin stove along the Yukon River, pleasure skiing at 20 below zero probably seems like the kind of trivial lark you’d expect from Southland dilettantes in Alaska's largest city.

So be it. I didn't want it to be any colder. The teens-below-zero were plenty respectable enough for my bragging rights. I wasn't embarrassed to say I'd skied in them. At least, not until I quit and limped back to my car.

Last night, I decided I needed to get reorganized for my counter-attack, rethink the process, tweak the layering, stoke the belly with food.

Come morning -- 17 below zero on my front porch in East Anchorage -- I made some changes as I prepped to finish my aborted workout.

Instead of venturing into the cold on a relatively empty stomach, I breakfasted on sausage and five eggs. Instead of making do with only two layers on bottom and three layers on top, I splurged, adding a pair of windpants to my legs plus another long underwear top and fleece vest over my torso. Instead of relying on merely a nylon buff, ear band and fleece cap to cover my head, I added a big home-sewn fleece muff that I could pull over my mouth like I was a bandit.

For the feet, I switched from high-performance ski boots with that snug, efficient fit to a broken down pair older than my teenage son. Their virtue was a squishy fleece liner and lots of empty space that seemed to trap heat. Mittens I left the same, since any additional bulk would simply make me as incapable of handy manipulation as a penguin on an ice cap.

There was one last periphery digit that required special attention. Given that I expected the coldest ski of the season so far, I stuffed an old dog-chewed watch cap into the nether regions where certain vulnerable organs reside. Male skiers out there know exactly the sort of tear-inducing, gasping-in-disbelief, frost-nipped agony I was trying to avoid as I carefully positioned the cap to serve both as extra insulation and wind-blocker. Near these temperatures, nothing might be more important than getting that raggedy old hat fitted just so between my legs.

The car thermometer registered 16 below at the trailhead -- ominous since the thing regularly overestimates the ambient temperature by five to six degrees. I bundled on the last outer layers and set out into the forest, squeaking and creaking down the track.

In a half hour, I had reached a bridge over the creek -- in the heart of a park that draws salmon and brown bears during summer -- and I paused. Utterly alone. The water burbled beneath the ice, while the snowy woods lay as serene and creamy as a Christmas card. This, I thought, was worth the admission price.

My fingers weren't too numb -- at least they didn't hurt. As long as I gently pried the frost off my eyelids every couple hundred yards, I was seeing just fine. Toes? So far so good. Not that they were warm exactly, but at least they weren't frozen. 

I called it victory: A successful ski at 20 below zero into a gorgeous frozen forest in the heart of Anchorage's wildest park. It had just been a matter of dialing in the right set of clothing, and scarfing down some high-fat food.

I headed back toward the trailhead. The ravens were still calling when the sun rose at my location, spreading a sudden orange glow through the frosted crowns of the trees. I fumbled bluntly with the mitten at my sleeves until I exposed the face of my watch. It was 10:54 a.m., full daylight at last, and I felt warmer already.

Contact Doug O'Harra at doug@alaskadispatch.com