Splitboarding the Tordrillos, AK cover photo by Zach Clanton.
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The jagged granite peaks of the Tordrillo Mountains dwarf any sense of society or security and leave only rawness. A sub-range of the massive Alaska Range, the un-maned wildness is abrupt and relentless. To put the scope of this glaciated frozen place into perspective, the range could cover the entire state of California. Pinpointing the location we wanted to snowboard was a daunting task. Our minds whirled with images of the maps, digital & paper topographic layered over aerial photography. Coordinating with the pilot was what finally set our adventure into action.
We loaded our gear into their beautiful chrome beaver bush plane. Our pilot Ben Knapp, was one of the nicest and genuine Alaskans around. When I asked why, he replied, “because in Alaska, people either become fishermen or pilots.” He flew us around until we made a group decision on a safe camp spot. We then flew through a tight col and made a spiral descent onto the glacier. He was such a talented pilot. Sadly Ben passed away in 2018 and is greatly missed by many.
We touched down but didn’t feel a thing; I could see clouds of snow billowing up around us through the plane windows. Ben pulled back up after realizing that the snow was too deep to land. He would have to pack in a landing zone with a couple passes. After a couple more touchdowns, we stopped. The first steps out of the plane seemed like they belonged in a fairytale, waist-deep fluffy snow! We diligently packed in a boot pack and staggered along it to pass our gear down the line, out of the plane, and away from the newly formed runway. Ben made a few more circles on the runway to pack it down for his planned return 9 days later. Each lap threw up a huge powder spray from the plane and then he was gone. We were surrounded in huge mountains and absolute silence. Little ant-sized people with our tiny pile of supplies amongst giants.
We laughed as we stomped out our camp with our split boards and made flat spots to set up our tents. “Is this real? Someone please pinch me!” We were where we’d dreamt of being so many nights. Planted in the midst of powder-coated spines, long steep couloirs, brilliant blue ice, and sharp golden granite peaks. With camp set and the sun fading we crawled into our tents under a sky full of stars, unimpeded by artificial light. The type of sky our ancestors must have seen and never thought would change.
We woke up with wonderment at our surroundings. The glacier we had made our temporary home deserved some exploring. So we roped up and pointed our route toward the mellowest point of the steep mountain face. With all the new snow, we knew that deep crevasses could be lightly covered, so we aimed for higher ground and linked the perceived safe points together. The ascent route we picked was a runnel between two spines. With slopes this steep, snow is consistently shedding, creating a consolidated surface we could pack steps into. Just under the bergschrund, where the moving glacier ice meets the stable slope, we assessed the snowpack. We were delighted by what our snow pits where showing us, relative stability.
We used our splitboards as anchors to hold on to as we built steps by packing snow with our feet and crossed the bergschrund. We took turns booting straight up the runnel to set the track. Our views improved the higher we ascended. We were getting close to the top and our rotation landed on my turn to take the lead again. I pushed upwards until I came to a thin rocky section where the ground dropped out from under me and I lost my footing. A panicked feeling shot through me as I fell and caught my hips on a rock 1500’ above the valley floor. I shakily pulled myself out using all the strength in my arms to pull on my board overhead. Once on top of the snow, I used all that freshly circulating adrenaline to finish the climb.
Once we all got on the top of the ridge we were greeted with expansive views of the range. Our base camp valley, which seemed so huge, dwindled in comparison to this expanse of endless miles of glaciated peaks. We discussed the lines we wanted to ride, picnicked on the ridge, and made a plan to get photos. After building a platform, I strapped into my board on top of an untouched spine loaded with powder. Zach dropped first. His exhilaration with every turn played out in big sprays and loud slough on either side of the spine he delightfully put his signature on.
We went back to the spine wall for three sublime days of splitboarding the Tordrillos. The slough calls were mandatory, the drop-ins were thin, but the meat of the spines were pristine, deep, and surreal. We all had the best lines of our lives. We were all laughing at the bottom of the slope, our hearts filled with the pure ecstasy. As we carved our turns into knife ridge spines, the range of feelings was vast. There was the nervousness on top, the silence in that first turn, the pure connection to that moment, fully in the zone, brilliant focus, and the almost overwhelming elation from the runout.
I couldn’t get enough. Then, I got spanked; one line I picked didn’t go from the ridge and required a short traverse to get onto. As I crossed the slope a sharp rock grabbed the base of my board and all of the sudden I was in a full tomahawk, falling feet over head. Stunned, I was able to get back to my feet and point it for the spine and out of the runnel. Or so I hoped, not reaching it in time, I was swept down by my river of slough and dragged to the bottom and over the bergschrund. My confidence was crushed and I kept ruminating on the thought, “I know better, I am better.”
After a solid session of self-doubt and criticism about my mistake, I pulled myself back to my feet. I changed my outlook knowing I was incredibly lucky. I wasn’t critically hurt, I wasn’t in a deep dark hole, and the conditions I had been riding couldn’t have been better. Choosing to be grateful for the lesson that I gained from my experience, I climbed back up to ride another line.
Stay tuned for part 2 of “Splitboarding the Tordrillos” for tales of weathering a nasty AK storm!
About the Author
Location: Park City, UT
Cindi is a professional splitboarder, mountain guide, writer, yoga teacher, and Wasatch native with a feverish passion for connecting with nature. As a young girl, Cindi Lou met her life partner Zach and dedicated her life to living fully through snowboarding. With a couple decades of backcountry experience and various guiding certifications her passion is to inspire others to experience a reconnection with the natural world. She resides in a ride in/out backcountry cabin, she and her husband Zach built. It is a simple shed roof home that is completely snowbound, has world class touring from the doorstep, a yoga studio, mountain spring water system, and is filled with natural light. When she is not at home, she loves splitboard expeditions and exploring remote mountain ranges.
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