Sämi Hepner

University of Zurich

Before I learned to walk I learned to ski. Later, when I was 7 years young, I began to snowboard. During the last 15 years, I have become both a fanatic skier and snowboarder. I count my days on the snow. In a winter season, which for me, in Switzerland, begins in late October and ends at the end of May, I normally count about 50 snow days. My record was 60 days on the slope back when I was in high school.

Apart from downhill skiing and snowboarding I tried cross-country skiing a few times. It was fun, but did not compare with downhill skiing. Once I tried telemarking. The feeling was something between skiing and snowboarding: not as smooth and flowing as snowboarding, and not as fast and speedy as skiing. I was not convinced.

When I heard about JIRP I was excited about the idea of skiing in the summer. I have traveled to South America twice during my summertime, where I skied in their winter. But to ski in the actual summer was something new.

Reading the complicated description of the required ski gear for JIRP I couldn’t imagine what type of ski we would be using. I went to different ski and outdoor stores in Switzerland and showed the whole description to the salespeople. No one could help me find this weird ski creation. Finally, I purchased a pair on the website of an American outdoor store and sent them directly to Alaska. Even once they arrived in Alaska, we had to change the bindings to meet the JIRP requirements.

Once at JIRP, I tried the skis for the first time. It turned out that the ski is more or less a cross-country ski: it is long, lightweight and has no sidecut. Additionally, it has some features for backcountry use: the edges are metal for stability, and the bases have fish scales to allow uphill travel. The binding, which is an old school three-pin-style nordic binding, works like a telemark binding in that the toe is fixed while the heel is free. The boot itself is a telemarking boot and surprisingly compatible to the binding.

This style of skiing is more difficult than I expected. The thin ski requires a lot of balance, made even more difficult when you are wearing a heavy backpack. The snow is certainly not flat and there are a lot of bumps in the snow surface, called sun cups, which make the way challenging. Traversing the glacier often requires a rope to connect members of the trail party. Keeping the rope appropriately taut requires matching skiing speeds between the members of the team. Skiing on a rope team also requires constant attention to avoid both cutting the rope with the steel ski edges and creating tangles and snarls of rope around the harness, legs, and skis.

Typical rope team of four people with skis. From left to right:  Annika, Annie (Lynx), and Louise. Photo by Sämi Hepner

Typical rope team of four people with skis. From left to right:  Annika, Annie (Lynx), and Louise. Photo by Sämi Hepner

At our first camp we often went to the Ptarmigan Glacier to downhill ski in our meager spare time. Because of the slopes lack of constant exposure to the sun, the sun cups were not as bad. Without backpack and rope we succeeded and failed in some inspiring telemark turns. Without T-bars or gondolas, we had to earn every run and appreciated each one even more. The runs were something rare, special and valuable.

Riding the sunset. Photo by Sämi Hepner.

Riding the sunset. Photo by Sämi Hepner.

Continuing the traverse towards Atlin, we are confronted more and more with huge flat areas of the icefield without any ascents or descents. Crossing these plains, our transportation reminds me more of hiking than of skiing. These long walks in the middle of a wild landscape and in a certain amount of isolation leave time to think and philosophize.

One thought I’ve had is the following: It is insane, how big the energy footprint of conventional downhill skiing is. The production of artificial snow, as a result of decreasing natural snowfall, requires huge amounts of water and energy. The attempt to get more tourists and visitors uphill with continuously bigger and fancier gondolas leads to a kind of urbanization of the mountain. In the end it is another modification and conquest of a natural space by humans. Skiing, then, is no longer associated with a peaceful immersion in nature, but just another consumer’s entertainment. Maybe we should start to rethink skiing and go back to skiing’s roots; where sweaty ascents through beautiful landscapes are more valued than perfectly shaped but crowded slopes or après-ski parties that surround the whole mountain with loud and annoying sounds. Instead, maybe we can share the fascination of skiing with the next generation, or at least the fascination of Cross-Back-Tele-Country-Mark-Hiking.