Summer glacier skiing can make the front page of the SUNDAY Anchorage Daily News! Check it out here:
Marc Lester, ADN photographer came up and joined us for the first night of our glacier camp. When he wasn’t taking pictures he even joined us in the kitchen and assisted our cook crew. (Thanks Marc!) Check out this awesome six minute video that he made about us:
EAGLE GLACIER — It’s always winter at Eagle Glacier, perhaps never more so than in the summer. June, July and August mark the cross-country ski season at the Thomas Training Center, the facility that sits high on a ridge above Girdwood in the Chugach Mountains.
This is where the best skiers in Alaska come to get better. Sometimes, like at a recent training camp that featured an Olympic gold medalist from Canada and a World Championship silver medalist from Alaska, it’s where the best skiers on the continent come to get better.
Here, skiers find an endless winter — even when skiing in shorts and T-shirts under a blazing summer sun — that is helping them gain ground in a sport long dominated by Europeans.
“We kind of went across the world and looked at all the different programs that were having high-level success and looked for the different things they used in their training,” said Erik Flora, head coach of the Alaska Pacific University nordic ski program, which runs the Thomas Training Center. “The first thing that became apparent is that as a country, we didn’t ski as much as the rest of the world. The world leaders, that is.”
APU didn’t need to search the world for a solution to that shortcoming. It needed only to look up.
LONG DAYS OF SKIING
A mile high in the mountains and about a 10-minute helicopter ride from Girdwood, Eagle Glacier has long drawn skiers jonesing for snow during an Alaska summer.
A photo album in the two-story training center shows scenes from the 1980s, when Olympic skiers Jim Galanes and Bill Spencer used a wall tent for a base camp while glacier training. Even before that, in the 1960s, Lowell Thomas Jr., the famed Alaska bush pilot and former lieutenant governor who donated $1 million to the APU nordic program in 1999, brought his kids here to ski in the summer.
These days, skiers usually arrive in an Alpine Air helicopter and can look forward to hot food and warm beds after long days of glacier skiing. They sleep in bunk beds, cook meals together and hang clothes — some damp with sweat, some damp with the rain that occasionally pelts the glacier — on indoor clotheslines that become colorful displays of gloves, hats and socks.
At the end of July, the training center was the scene of a week-long slumber party for some of the world’s top women. Among the 14 skiers from the United States and Canada who shared close quarters — and maybe some training secrets — were Chandra Crawford, an Olympic champion from Canada, and Kikkan Randall, a World Championship silver medalist from Anchorage.
“We’re geographically isolated from our competitors, so it’s really great to have the Canadians up here,” said APU skier Holly Brooks, a 2010 Olympian who will compete for the U.S. Ski Team at the first series of World Cup races this winter. “They can bring in their strengths and their ideas, and what they’ve seen from the international field.
“I think that we’ve realized that in order to get better and to improve, we have to work together. We have to share some of our ideas and some of our quote-unquote trade secrets.”
Not that all of the sharing involves skiing.
Crawford, who won the sprint race at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, spent some of her downtime playing the guitar, teaching chords and organizing a three-part-harmony sing-along with APU skiers Becca Rorabaugh and Kinsey Loan.
MISERY LEADS TO MEDALS
At the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, after posting the then-best finish in history by an American woman, Anchorage’s Nina Kemppel paid tribute to Eagle Glacier. She had skied to 15th place in the women’s 30-kilometer classic, a race made messy and difficult by wet, falling snow and 33-degree temperatures.
“Thank you, Jim Galanes, for making me ski on all of those horrible, ucky days with no kick wax up at Eagle Glacier,” she said.
At a 2007 sprint race in Rybinsk, Russia, after becoming the first American woman to win a World Cup medal, Randall gave credit to the glacier. She had placed third on a sprint course pieced together with crushed ice.
“Conditions were what you might see on a glacier in Alaska during the summer,” she said. “I’ve asked myself (at Eagle Glacier), ‘When am I ever gonna race on this?’ It was good today to have that experience.”
At last season’s national championships in Maine, the APU ski team turned heads with its domination of the awards podium — and again the glacier earned praise.
“Eagle Glacier is a critical component in that we’re able to come up here once a month and ski for seven days,” Flora said. “And so you never lose that snow feel.”
‘A LOT OF MILES’
Because this is a glacier, there are hazards.
Crevasses are a concern, so tracks are set in areas with low probability of crevasses and the course is marked by wands.
The two-story building is bolted to an outcrop of rocks between the glacier and a cliff. The cliff features a nearly vertical drop and yellow tape warns people to keep their distance. If anyone is caught beyond the yellow tape, a helicopter is called and the person is kicked out of the camp.
A staff of three, including Flora, runs the center but athletes are expected to pitch in. The staff is in charge of setting and grooming trails — a job made more pleasant this summer with the arrival of a new PistenBully — but athletes help with maintenance and by taking care of the cooking.
Meals served at the recent women’s camp can best be described as heaping: a mound of food for every plate, with appetites to match — the result of two long workouts a day.
“We’re expecting them to ski a whole lot,” Flora said. “We use this camp to build endurance. One of the ways to build endurance is to ski a lot. Ski a lot, a lot, a lot of miles.”
Flora estimated skiers at the women’s camp put in 60 to 75 kilometers a day on an 8-kilometer loop. For the entire week, that added up to about 25 hours of skiing.
Between workouts and in the evening, athletes enjoy living arrangements that are communal but quite civilized.
There are composting toilets and a supply of water from a nearby pond. There’s a dresser filled with old VHS tapes and newer DVDs and a television to watch them on. There’s a big freezer stocked with food and an exercise room equipped with a stationary bicycle — and decorated with a poster of four-time Olympian Kemppel.
“I love it,” Randall said. “It’s a great chance to eat, sleep and train. And the good camaraderie of everybody just working hard and suffering through some tough conditions and also celebrating some just absolutely beautiful days. We laugh a lot. We have fun a lot.”
And best of all, the glacier is just an hour away from Anchorage, a trip that includes a quick helicopter ride to the training center.
“This is a huge advantage,” Randall said. “I mean, it’s almost ridiculous when you can be at your house one minute and an hour later you’re up here skiing on the glacier. It’s an incredible facility, really.”