Earlier this month four professional Czech skiers set out for the trip of a lifetime: skiing some of the steepest peaks in the world in Thompson Pass, Alaska. The team included former world skicross champion Tomáš Kraus, Olympian snowboarder Michal Novotný, snowboarder Martin Černík, and freeride skier Robin Kaleta. For seven days or so the four tackled some of the toughest faces in the area for a short documentary.
“I was first in Alaska back in 2002, but back then it was just for the summer, working in local hotels, so I didn’t get to ski there. But I did see the mountains and I knew that I had to come back one day.”
You said it was difficult to describe what it was like now that you did ski there, many different impressions… what was your first one?
“Scary. Extremely scary! I never thought it would be that steep, I never thought that the cornices would be that big. It really scared the hell out of me and it takes a lot of time to mentally prepare yourself to ski at your edge. That’s the thing that I still have to accomplish, because what I did was ski far below my limit. It was just too scary to push it!”
That sounds extraordinary, given your experience with freeriding, you’ve skied all over the world, what is it about Alaska that is the biggest difference?
“I think mainly that it’s the snow, because there it sticks to any slope, up to any steepness that you can imagine. Up to 60 degrees it is still powder and you can rely on the snow no matter how long it has been there, regardless of how much slough has gone down. It’s still pretty soft. On your way down you know you are not going to hit an ice, any ice fields or any crust. You just need to go where you are going and to be as fast as possible so you don’t get hit by the slough (a smaller avalanche) from behind. I can usually estimate what is dangerous and what is safe, how big a cliff I can drop from, so it’s basically just about experience.”
There were four of you (two skiers, two snowboarders) with different specializations: how did these help or hurt you?
“My experience helped a lot, Martin Černík’s also. Tomáš Kraus and Michal Novotný come from a different background as racers: I was very curious how they would deal with the steepness and everything. The thing is, once they knew where they were going they did a perfect job. They know how to make perfect turns: Tomas is the very best. So in the end, it makes no difference whether you’re on a course or freeriding: it’s still skiing, it’s still making proper turns. So, once he got used to it he was perfect. When he didn’t know – an area was convex, he couldn’t see over a ridge, he was of course much more careful to expect what was behind it, because for him it was a new experience.”
You said that you skied well below your threshold; all the same was there any point when things got out of hand? It was mentioned that you had one more potentially serious fall…
“I did fall, I did and it’s because the mountains are so different. It was a point when I was trying to push myself into a move I can normally do, closer to my limit, but I didn’t properly take into consideration the hugeness of the mountains. The cornice that I was sure was safe came down with me and I almost ended up falling down the call face in the cornice. Luckily, I managed to grab a piece of snow and to stay on top. That was just one of the many things that reminded me how big it was and that no matter how good the snow is, you still have to realise these are big mountains with steep faces and there is a lot of snow that can come down and kill you.”
You guys got in about seven full ski days: what did a typical day look like and how did you get to many of these peaks?
“Mostly by helicopters, to save time. You choose where you want to go and five minutes later you are standing on the top waiting for the cameraman on the other side to begin filming. That was most of the time. But on days when our budget was tighter was also relied on skidoos or just ski touring to get to smaller lines, so even if you don’t want to fly, there are a lot of options at Thompson Pass."
The pilots that you flew with are obviously pros, but some of the places you landed looked very tight, even risky.
“I guess it might be risky but nobody talks about it and it’s none of our business. It’s their job and it’s not going to help you if think about what could happen: you really want to focus on your own situation, on the skiing.”
Why did they drop one of you at chosen locations?
“They didn’t have to, but they dropped us off around 200 or 300 metres apart for the film. So the cameraman could shoot each of us coming down in pristine, untouched snow, without any other lines. That’s why.”
Most of these photos look absolutely fantastic, some of these slopes being steeper than 45 degrees. You can almost reach out to touch the 'wall' behind you...
“If it were in Europe, it would be ice and you wouldn’t be able to go at all fast. Very technical and you have to be careful. But here you could drop into it and ski a 45 degree slope as if was 40. It takes time but then it clicks and you get into it.”
What was one of the mountains that you guys skied that you won’t forget, that we’ll see in the film?
“For me it was Diamond Peak, which, compared to other lines that we did, was quite long, say 500 metres vertical. That’s quite long for Alaska. When I was trying to get onto the face, that’s where the huge cornice released with me. When I was on my line, after all this was behind me, I was shaking. This slope was very steep, not very safe, just a minute ago I almost got smashed by a big amount of snow. It was very intense for me to be able to ski down but not ‘break down’.”
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