STORY AND PHOTOS BY KOLIN SMITH
Snowmachining throughout Alaska offers some of the best riding in the world. However, great reward does not come without great risk, and early-season riding is a testament to that. Each October, we all start to get that itch to ride, the need to get in the garage and tune up the sled. Some do this by way of their local dealership and others by putting in the long hours turning wrenches, pulling out the dents, cleaning up the scratches or even treating the machine that led you on those great rides with new parts.
While the 2015 riding season has only just begun as the rivers start to freeze and the mountaintops get brighter and whiter by the day, this is considered to be the best time of the year by many. The itch to get out and ride considerably getting harder to deal with once you have completed your preseason tasks. Many, like myself, have ventured north already with hopes of finding those open ranges between Eureka and Paxson to be with covered in white gold. Riding this time of year by many is considered too soon, but for others it fills the void that has been created during the past few long months.
With this desire to ride in mind, a buddy and I accompanied by his younger brother, decided Halloween weekend would be our chance to get out. With a fully loaded trailer, we pulled out of Wasilla at 5:30 a.m., Paxson bound. With fresh snow in Eureka and Glennallen, our hopes of getting on the snow for the first time this year were looking good thus far.
Arriving into what would normally be the grounds of Arctic Man, we unloaded and headed up trail; while snow was minimal down low, we could see our target up high within sight. After passing over peak after peak we had finally found ourselves a stone’s throw away from fresh untouched powder, the sight we had all been yearning for all summer long.
We then embarked on our first descent into the unknown of what lies below, the fresh snow had been around the 2- to 3-foot mark, but many obstacles could be seen just begging for a chance at our lower A-arms. The riding felt great, life behind bars of our sleds is one that is hard to top. The desire to go farther and higher grew more and more as we completed powder turn after powder turn. We then set our sights on the area of the Gakona Glacier. While being cautious as anyone should on
a glacier – many advise to simply stay off them altogether – we proceeded to ride carefully and took many pictures. We decided to then head further up the glacier. I chose to follow tracks that had appeared to have been left from the week before, which led me to a slight 30-degree hill climb.
Upon summiting the climb, I found myself in front of two very large exposed crevasses, leading me to turn off the climb immediately and head back down the hill. As I descended, I saw my friend’s brother, following my route, and attempting the climb himself, not knowing about the danger ahead. He was not as lucky as me. Upon reaching the top, he found the crevasses abruptly, catching him off guard and not giving him enough time to turn downhill. Watching helplessly from afar, his older brother and I saw him clear the first crevasse, about five-feet wide, only to watch him and his sled disappear at the second one.
We immediately pinned the throttle and climbed as high and fast as possible, expecting the worse.
Ripping our helmets off, we ran toward the large crevasse, calling out for his brother but we do not hear a response. I ran toward the edge to try and look down into the large gap but was unable to see the bottom.
Finally, we hear the brother, yelling from below that his ankle is broken and the sled is on top of him. We then follow the top of the crevasse line until we reach a point we can slide into and carefully walk through it, not knowing if we are standing on two inches of ice with hundreds of feet below us, or if it is solid snow.
We walked about 50 feet through the crevasse until we found the sled in a fresh 20-foot hole, pinning the brother below it. My friend went down into the hole and moved the sled from his brother’s ankle.
The younger brother explained that after losing momentum at the top of the climb, he smashed into the other side of now 15-foot gap above us. He was able to push the sled away from his body on impact, but he landed on his back, and the sled then fell beside him, landing on his left ankle and smashing it into pieces. The hard impact of the sled crashing down then caused the shelf he had landed on to crack and fall another two feet down with the sled now on top of him.
We eventually managed to pull the sled out from the hole and ride it out of the crevasse on one ski. We wrapped my friend’s younger brother in an emergency blanket, then we each grabbed a shoulder and pulled him from the hole. After weighing the decision to have him airlifted we decided to medicate the brother with the medical kit I had with me and ride out. It was a slow and careful trip, but we made it back to the truck.
We drove to Glennallen, where he was examined at the Cross Road medical center to be told “his bones are not where they should be and he would need surgery immediately.”
With that news, we headed directly to the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center, where he underwent surgery by evening. After a broken talus bone, surgery, and bed rest for five days, my friend’s brother returned home, happy to be alive, and to a grateful family.
Stories like ours remind us all, how when out doing the things we love, suddenly a day of pleasure can turn into a fight for survival. One simple mistake, and it can be over. Our sport comes with risks, and we take them each and every time we decide to ride. You have to take risks. You only understand the miracle of life fully when the unexpected happens.
We think about it the moment we say goodbye to our loved ones the morning of whatever adventure lies ahead. The question that comes to mind as you pull away from your home is, ‘how far do I push myself today?’ Knowing your limits will save your life, and having the proper equipment and knowing how to use it by preparing for the worst is vital. Check these things every time you leave the house so you, too, can come back home to your loved ones.
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