The Ultima Thule lodge has an almost mythical aura surrounding it. Lots of people know about it, or have heard amazing rumors of it, but not very many people have been there, especially for skiing. I first heard about it fifteen years ago from Alex Lowe who went there as part of a North Face trip. Alex had skied and climbed all over the world, yet in the following years, he always seemed to mention the Ultima Thule trip with a special excitement.
Alex wasn't the only one. Die hard skiers like Lorne Glick and Jack Hart have returned to Ultima Thule year after year with rave reviews. Of all these skiers, the one who really made me curious about Ultima Thule was Ruedi Homberger from Arosa, Switzerland. Living in the center of the skiing universe and having traveled to more skiing locations around the world than anyone I've ever met, "Hombi" had been returning to Ultima Thule for over a decade, with each trip getting longer. If there was ever a guy who knew about good ski mountaineering, it's Hombi, and he had been hinting that I should go up there for years.
The company and lodge are officially known as Ultima Thule Outfitters and are run by the Claus family. The history of it is an amazing case of serendipity that is unlikely to ever happen again. Located in the southeast corner of Alaska, roughly in the vicinity of Valdez, the terrain featured sunny rock bluffs which attracted trophy Dahl sheep. John Claus, a bush pilot and hunting guide, established a small seasonal camp there in 1960. He eventually bought a small piece of land from the BLM to build a cabin on, yet in 1980 congress declared the area a National Park. Fortunately, the Claus cabin was grandfathered into the park. Through this happenstance, the Ultima Thule lodge got a new 13.8 million acre backyard of the most scenic, rugged, stunning terrain on earth with virtually no other neighbors, aside from moose, bears and sheep.
As if this area needed a dedicated explorer, John's son, Paul Claus, grew up climbing, skiing and flying. He and his wife Donna moved into the cabin as a permanent house and spent years upgrading the facilities and business to the point is at today. Now, twenty-five years later, Paul has flown over, climbed and skied throughout the park and knows it intimately.
As if 13.8 million acres wasn't enough, the Wrangell - St. Elias National Park abuts Canada's Klaune National Park for a combined area of 25 million acres, which is larger than many states, or even countries for that matter. The scale is so large that it is almost impossible to get a feeling for it. After a day of skiing pristine powder (almost all skiing there is a first descent), we climbed upward in Paul's plane and the vast terrain we had tracked up disappeared into a series of mountains and glaciers, which in turn was swallowed up by smaller mountain ranges, which in turn were consumed by medium size ranges, then larger ranges, and larger still. Eventually we couldn't even pick out where we skied and yet the edges of the park were lost from sight somewhere beyond the curve of the earth off in the distance. The hugeness of it all makes any claims by ski areas or heli skiing services about the size of their terrain seem pathetically laughable. On a crowded day you might only have 100,000 acres to yourself.
I finally made it up to the Ultima Thule lodge in April of 2007. Most people have an agenda before they head up there, such as climbing or skiing a major peak or spending a week doing plane assisted day ski tours from the lodge. We had a more general plan - fly in, see the lodge, then get flown out to a good skiing zone for a week of Alaska camping. Ideally, we were looking for an area that had one big objective in it, as well as good day tours. Paul suggested the Russell Glacier on the north side of Mt. Bona.
I was fortunate on this trip to have Grant Guise from New Zealand and Ben Ditto from Salt Lake City along as partners. None of us really knew what to expect, so each day was something new and exciting.
After a day of excellent plane assisted skiing around the lodge and an incredible dinner prepared by Donna, we loaded all of our gear up in the Turbine Otter and flew out to the Russell Glacier. I've never been much of a plane aficionado, but have flown in enough small craft to know that Paul's turbine Otter was something special. The plane started life as a rotary engine "ground loving" aircraft and was later given a massive horsepower upgrade with a turbine engine which allows it to fly higher, faster and carry heavy loads, while still landing on remote gravel bars or wild hanging glaciers. As cool as the plane is, it is only as good as the person piloting it, and with 30,000 hours of flight experience, Paul was a perfect match. All of the skiers on board were enthralled the mountain flights and amused to see Paul's kids, Jay and Logan either sleeping or reading comic books as they had grown up with it.
Our main objective on the Russell Glacier was to climb and ski the northeast ridge of Mt. Bona, which had never been done before. With over 9,000' of gain, it was a daunting project, especially considering the conditions and crevasses. On previous Alaska trips, I've started out with conservative roped glacier travel and then relaxed the ropework as we become familiar and confident with the amount of cracks to be found. This trip was just the opposite. We started out conservatively roping our way across obvious crevasse fields, yet after a few close calls and seeing how many bridges we were crossing, we ended up doing roped travel almost 100% of the time. I don't know if it was the season, the area or just our luck, but I have never seen such crevasse riddled terrain.
Our two attempts on Mt. Bona got us to about the 11,000' level on this 16,000' peak. If you could put aside the fear of falling into a bottomless crevasse, the skiing would not have been all that hard or technical, yet the crevasses alone made me leery of attempting the route. Not only would we have to remain roped up and belayed for the entire ascent (which was probably close to five miles long), we would have to stay roped up for the descent as well. Crossing huge crevasses became a matter of course which never got any easier and it seemed certain that we would have multiple crevasse falls if we pushed on. I wasn't comfortable with this, as well as the fact that we'd have to try it in one push (no extra camping gear) and was relieved to hear that Ben and Grant didn't have their hearts set on it either. Instead we decided to ski some of the smaller local shots.
One of the first, and best was a pyramid shaped peak we dubbed "Crystal Peak." Like all things Alaskan, it was much larger than it looked and took us most of the day to climb and ski it. The face was a steep, open field of perfect powder, which would have been suspect in the Wasatch Mountains, but held firm and didn't show any signs of avalanche instability.
The next day we climbed and skied a line named the Corkscrew Couloir, due to its twisty nature. This had the potential to be an incredible descent, but the flat light made every turn an adventure and broke the descent into little sections of hunting & pecking for good snow.
A day or so later, we climbed and skied a mountain which was dubbed "Death Peak" in retrospect. After diligently roping up to cross the glaciers, we made it to the base of the peak which had a nice mellow slope leading up to a rocky ridge. There were no crevasses in sight, and being sick of the constant jerking and pulling associated with roped skiing, we dropped our rope and gear at the base.
After skinning and booting up the ridge, Grant and I decided to ski back down the skyline while Ben (being a professional photographer) went to a point a few hundred feet away to shoot back at us. Using Motorolla Talkabout radios, we talked to Ben as he fired off shots of us skiing down about 750' below him. At that point, Ben was going to ski down a join us, but his vantage point was too low to get back to the line we skied, so we tried to direct him over the top of the peak to a gorgeous skiable face that would connect us. This was a distance of about 100 yards from where he was standing and he packed up his gear and disappeared behind the peak.
As Grant and I were surveying our ski tracks the radio came to life. "I'm hanging upside down in a massive crevasse and I'm going to die!" Ben has a good sense of humor, but it didn't sound like he was kidding this time. "Do you need us to come get you?"
There was no doubt about that one. I met Grant through Randonee racing and we both put those skills to use by stripping off our skis, throwing them on our pack and racing back up our boot trail to get to the summit. Still, going as fast as we could, this took about twenty minutes, during which time we checked in with Ben on the radio. He seemed fairly calm, but with a panicked edge. As we got near the top he told us to be careful not to fall in ourselves, or break the bridge he was on, as well as asking a more unique request; "Take a quick photo and then haul my ass out of here."
From that comment I assumed the situation wasn't as bad as I'd feared, but as we carefully followed his tracks down, it turned out to be even worse than I had imagined! The tracks ended in a dark black hole and all we could see were the bases of his K2 Mt. Bakers pointing skyward. He wasn't kidding - he really was hanging upside down in a huge crevasse and was about to die. I forgot about the photo request and concentrated on getting over the crevasse ourselves so we could haul him out. Grant crossed over first, but stopped when he saw a dark opening near his tips. "GO GRANT GO! You are standing right on the bridge!" Grant shot forward and then I took a deep breath, had light, positive thoughts and pushed across the bridge myself. We both made it and were now on the downhill side of the crack.
We made it over to Ben, who was pleading with us not to get too close to the edge and collapse the small bit of snow that was still supporting him. The crevasse was just as he said - bottomless. At this point we had a small problem; all of our rescue gear was thousand of feet below us, including the rope. The only thing I had with me was an ice axe and a snow picket which were attached to my pack. Spearing the axe through the picket lanyard and stomping the shaft into the snow near the lip, I dropped the picket down towards Ben. Between the picket lanyard and the length of half of the picket, it only came to about Ben's knees. It looked like we would need something longer (what?), but then Ben did an inverted sit-up and grabbed the clip-in loop on the picket with a determined death grip. This gave him some purchase, so I lowered my ski pole down to him and hoped the FlickLock mechanism wouldn't fail if he pulled on it too hard.
It didn't. Between the picket, the pole and grabbing his jacket, we hauled him up to the crevasse lip, only to have him jam on his chest camera pack and have to lower him back down to clear it. With a final heave, we pulled him clear of the crevasse and onto the slope below.
"AAAAHHHHHHHHH!!" was all he could say before begging to have his boots unbuckled and release some of the pain from hanging upside down in them for so long. As Ben was skiing without brakes or safety leashes, he had locked out his Dynafit toepiece to keep from losing his ski, which is ultimately what saved him. After initially breaking through the snowbridge, his heel pieces had released and left him hanging from a single Dynafit toepiece until he could jam his other ski up above his head as well. He had been hanging like a fruit bat for over twenty minutes, staring straight down into the abyss and only lost his hat.
The descent off the peak was nerve wracking now that we were all hyper-aware of crevasses, but we eventually made it back to the tent where we celebrated life by taking the next day off.
Our enthusiasm for skiing was dampened, so it was fortunate timing that Paul Claus flew by a day early and asked if we were ready to go. We weren't, but we could be in an hour, so we tore down camp and were ready to go when he returned with the Turbine Otter to pick us up.
Ruedi Homberger was back at the lodge with two Swiss friends, so after some gear sorting, we piled into the plane and got in an excellent day of skiing with them. One of the highlights was skiing a splitter couloir which was 2,000' long and 45-50 degrees the entire way. We ended up skiing it with Jay Claus and his friend Woodson (actually, it was their idea to begin with), which was an extra bonus. It was a stout descent and great to see how confidently Jay and Woodson skied it, considering they are 18 and 20 years old. It seems like the future of ski mountaineering is in good hands.
Donna cooked an incredible Thanksgiving style dinner and the next day we packed up to head back to Chitina and then home. But the skiing wasn't over yet. Paul flies in his ski boots and on the way out found an ideal little valley with a fun 3,000' glacier descent in it. As we flew out of the valley afterwards, I thought we were going to bee-line it to Chitina, but Paul drifted over towards the massive Mt. Blackburn and began an incredible half-an-hour fly over tour of this beautiful peak, complete with a running commentary on the lines that had been climbed and skied on it, as well as those that potentially might go. On a final pass, he lined up with the bald, rounded summit and said "It's so calm up here I could almost land on the peak." I thought he was going to, but instead we skimmed the top by a few feet, then had an instant dose of 7,000' of exposure as we plunged over the sheer backside.
"Whoa! Big air!" I said, to which Paul agreed, "Yeah, big air!" along with his trademark smile. I was glad to see that that after all his years of flying and adventures the thrill was still not lost on him.
Ultima Thule Outfitter
A satellite phone is very useful as the distances and mountains make radio communication with the lodge impractical.
Prices will vary according to how much flight time you require and how that fits into the other guests schedule. Paul is the master logistician and has a way of making everything work out for all involved. If you can wait a day a team up with a group who is going out day touring, you can divide the costs with them.
UTO is the flight service of choice for the Wrangell-St. Elias range, including such big peaks at St. Elias, University, Bona, Blackburn and Mt. Logan.
Due to their busy schedule, communication can be spotty when trying to organize a trip. Have faith - it will all work out.
Getting from Anchorage to Chitina is an all day drive and there is no public transportation. We drove a rental car out and another lodge guest drove it back. Sometimes one of the Claus' will be coming or going from Anchorage, or they may have to send a shuttle to get you.
The park is huge and it can be daunting to decide where to go in it. Paul is an excellent source and can help out with ideas. Let him know what you are generally interested in and he can fill in the blanks.
Email Ultima Thule: donnaclaus (at) mac.com