Passage: A Juneau Experience, with Silver Ambassador Kenzie Morris

April 21, 2020

Passage: A Juneau Experience, with Silver Ambassador Kenzie Morris

Photo: Juneau Landscape By Riley Bathurst

It was my first time visiting Alaska, as well as a first time for many experiences. I have accessed resort side country before, but never used a chairlift to enter thousands of untouched skiable backcountry acres adjacent to a ski area. Was this what I was missing all along, a place where backcountry and resort cohabitate in a perfect union? 

Snowledge and our team of athletes partnered with a small resort called Eaglecrest Ski Area, located just outside of Juneau, Alaska. Our plan was to spend the week riding the resort and backcountry, and experience downtown Juneau. I was told very little about the resort before our trip so I set out to do some research. What I found was an endless stream of blower powder shots on Instagram Stories. This seemed about right because Eaglecrest had not seen the sun since 2019 and recorded 54 consecutive days WITH snowfall!

 

Snowledge team, Ryan van den Meerendonk, Kenzie Morris, Eric Lee O’Brien, Brian Stenerson. Photo by Riley Bathurst

Having spent most of the last two seasons living out of a van I welcomed the opportunity to travel by air. There are no roads into or out of our destination, only ferries and fishing boats. Juneau is a coastal mountain community surrounded by rugged mountains and glaciers. Earlier that morning I woke up to the familiar faces of the Snowledge Team, bleary-eyed before the coffee had a chance to take effect. The air was full of the giddy excitement you feel when you realize the trip is actually happening and with that, we were on our way.

We witnessed the sun’s first morning glow as we became airborne over Canada’s endless expanse of coastal mountain ranges, which stretch as far as we could see. Not long after, the familiar preparations for landing and downward approach of the plane brought us through the clouds and in view of the dark green forests rising up to meet large white peaks. We descended low over great sparking ocean bays, twisting and turning through green mounds of forest before coming to land. With a deep breath, I filled my lungs for the first time with the fresh, crisp Alaskan air, which was buzzing with the sounds of prop planes departing on their journeys to surrounding villages.

The better part of the next half hour was spent trying to tetris six people, plus all of our gear, into two moderately sized late model Subaru’s, our humble rental cars for the week. Eaglecrest Ski Area is a quick commute from the Juneau airport and was closer than I expected. Within three hours of leaving Seattle we were booted up and ready to ski. Nestled in the center of Douglas Island, Eaglecrest features four fixed-grip chairs and over 1,600 vertical feet of scenic, diverse terrain. My first thought was:“this seems small,” but I was judging something I had not experienced yet, and quickly realized I was mistaken. With that first squeak of the familiar fixed-grip chair and I was immediately taken back. There is a sense of calm and awe that you just don’t get when you ride a high-speed six pack. The slow speeds give you time for those special conversations you can only have when it’s just you and your friend, together on a lift, going higher and higher up a mountain with expansive views in every direction.

Eaglecrest Ski Area in Juneau, Alaska. Photo by Riley Bathurst

Charlie Herrington, our trusty Eaglecrest guide and point person, collected us at the top of the lift. Before we could say much he smiled and swung his skis over his shoulder, “I can’t wait to show you how much is here” he said, as he began to hike up a narrow bootpack to the top of the resort. We follow in tow, passing through a frozen forest of trees I learned are aptly called snow ghosts. After a short hike we arrived on Pittman Ridge, where the shining waters of the ocean bay lay thousands of feet below. We looked around in awe, surrounded by terrain with all of the accoutrements an avid big mountain skier could dream of; spines, chutes, open bowls, and an endless option of cliffs to suit any skier or rider’s style.

Kenzie Morris hiking up the ridge on Eaglecrest's side country terrain. Photo by Riley Bathurst

It is only a short traverse and hike before we’re standing at the resort boundary, overlooking the plethora of sidecountry options that lay below. The first few days consisted of hiking and skiing as much as we could access, while getting familiar with the terrain, and often not crossing another track in the process. We timed our trip perfectly as the sun appeared for the first time in weeks. We were treated to clear views of the untracked surrounding ranges, and lines that would have been unskiable during the previous months’ storms.

Riley Bathurst and Brian Stenerson hiking the ridgeline of Eaglecrest Ski Area. Photo by Kenzie Morris

Even with this calm weather and fresh snow, we never saw a substantial crowd, only an occasional friendly rider on a bootpack or small group of friends hiking out of the sidecountry, just beyond the resort. This is the best part of a remote city like Juneau, there is a strong sense of community and the only people who are skiing are the local crowd.

Juneau sees its fair share of tourism and crowds, but this is mostly in the summer. Large cruise ships pack the harbor and fill the small downtown, which offers a range of sightseeing, wildlife viewing, glacier tours, and shopping options. The hotels and restaurants provide all of the comfort and attention to detail to please the most discerning world traveler, complete with local hospitality and flavor. We were fortunate to visit Juneau in their off season, as the winter months do not attract anywhere the same numbers of visitors as the busy summer months. This gave us a unique local experience and a nice change of pace from your typical bustling ski town. The population is a little over 33,000, which is about the number of skiers you might find on a busy day at Vail Resort.

Kenzie Morris Skipping stones in Juneau's harbor. Photo by Riley Bathurst

We transitioned into the backcountry for the remaining days of our trip, accessing the mountains beyond the resort boundary. Using Eaglecrest lodge as a base, we booted up and jumped on the lift. “A first time for everything” I thought as I rode the chair, giving me an easy boost up to the start of the skin track. We transitioned into touring mode at the top of the lift and began a quick ascent through the forest to Wedding Bowl, the closest accessible zone. From here, we had access to a series of lines including steep cliffs, open chutes, and river gullies under the looming frozen peak of Mt. Ben Stewart, the tallest peak on Douglas Island. We rode the lower terrain, lapping on a quick skin track and ticking off the features we had selected just moments before. Due to wind affected snow, we stayed below the summit while admiring the white world of ice and snow that lay above. The vast number of spines and chutes seemed to offer a lifetime of terrain to conquer, and we had only just scratched the surface.

Kenzie Morris ski touring in Juneau's Backcountry. Photo by Riley Bathurst

I’ll be honest. I am not the kind of person who really enjoys long backcountry tours. I have tried many times to convince myself otherwise but I accept that I like accessible downhill much more than uphill. But here at Eaglecrest, I have all the benefits of a quick easy tour and world-class downhill. It is a lazy backcountry skiers’ paradise. A place where you don’t have to choose one or the other, but rather can enjoy them together, and Eaglecrest openly accepts this union. The resort website states “Impressive backcountry access, untracked powder, and hardly a lift line.” There is something special about this union that feels different from most ski destinations, and it’s that unique vibe that has me already penciling in my next trip to Juneau.

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